what i watched last week
setsuko hara

film fatales #9: ratcatcher (lynne ramsay, 1999)

This was Ramsay’s first feature as a director (she also wrote the script). It is an uncompromising film ... Ramsay is an uncompromising filmmaker. (The word “uncompromising” turns up a lot in articles about her.)

Here, the great Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting discusses Ramsay as a poetic director:

The interviews with Ramsay in this video draw attention to something that affected the U.S. release of Ratcatcher: she is Scottish. I’ve always had trouble understanding the Scottish accent, and here, as with the first 20 minutes of Trainspotting when it was released in the U.S., the film is subtitled (unlike with Trainspotting, the subtitles exist throughout the film). I mention this only because I suspect this makes the movie feel different to an American audience than it would to one from Scotland. Subtitles may make a film seem more “arty” ... we associate them with foreign classics. And indeed, Ratcatcher is “arty”.

Since Ramsay isn’t one for explicitly explaining things, Ratcatcher isn’t always easy to follow. Zhou notes that she isn’t necessarily looking to narrative ... it is images that tell her story. But the setting isn’t clear, at least not to me. It takes place in Glasgow in 1973 ... there is no title card telling us this. It doesn’t hurt to do some research after the fact, I think ... there’s a garbage strike going on during the time of the film, and there is a subplot about families wanting to move from slums to newer housing. But perhaps I’m going too far ... Ramsay is able to convey the feel of this through the imagery. Old garbage piles up everywhere, and there’s a canal that looks like it’s been holding filth for a long time. She comes close to being anvilicious with all of this, but she definitely shows us the hopeless nature of the lives of the characters.

I only recognized one actor, Tommy Flanagan, who played Chibs in Sons of Anarchy. He is very good, but Ramsey gets effective performances from the entire cast, in part because she uses their faces to tell their stories, rather than burdening them with dialogue. The main character is a 12-year-old played by William Eadie, whose first film this was (he did not pursue an acting career).

I admit I rarely responded emotionally to what was on the screen. I’m not sure Ramsay was after that effect. The film is dismal and dreary on purpose, which is appropriate. One scene, where the boy and his “girl friend” take a bath together, is charming ... it is barely sexual, just two kids actually having fun for a bit, and there’s precious little fun to be had, so the scene is a welcome respite for the characters and the audience (although apparently it is this scene that provoked cries of exploitation). And there is another scene where a kid attaches his pet mouse to a balloon and lets it go to the moon. The kid is a bit slow, but Ramsay turns this into a lovely fantasy ... we see the mouse with the Earth in the background, then approaching the moon, and finally landing in a colony of other mice.

Ratcatcher is an impressive debut that makes me want to watch Ramsay’s subsequent films. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

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