Amy Flinders profiles Scottish director Lynne Ramsay in the first of a two-part feature...
Despite only having two features and a handful of short films to her name, Lynne Ramsay has managed to captivate audiences and critics alike and is well respected as a prolific and innovative director. It is perhaps the inspired combination of her vigilant, sensuous style with her often raw subject matter that allows her to create a powerful and enigmatic atmosphere in her films, whilst also concentrating on the small, finer details of life that her audiences can recognise from their own homes, families and childhood. After an eight-year break from feature filmmaking, Ramsay is soon to direct an adaptation of the Lionel Shriver novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin. In anticipation of her long-awaited return to the silver screen, this profile will offer a retrospective of her work and the techniques that have caused many to be enchanted and moved by her films.
Ramsay began her career with photography, which she studied at Napier College in Edinburgh. She has said that going to the cinema should be about the ‘cinematic experience,’ and she certainly practices as she preaches when it comes to using sound and image to tell her stories in vivid and engaging ways. After working as a director of photography, Ramsay felt that she needed to write authentic stories which she would illustrate using her unique and perceptive style:
‘I did photography before and I felt I should be there trying to experiment with the form. So I was really disillusioned by some of the scripts so I thought I'd write something a bit closer to home. So I started writing some short stories which I showed to an editor I'd worked with as a director of photography and she said that I should make them.’
She trained in cinematography and direction at the National Film and Television School and her graduation film, Small Deaths, won the 1996 Cannes Prix de Jury. This film was the first to illustrate Ramsay’s interest in telling stories about children and young people, which she developed later in a later short, Gasman (1997), and in her first feature, Ratcatcher (1999).
Small Deaths portrays three events at different stages in a young girl’s life. On the surface these occasions don’t appear to be particularly momentous, this perhaps being the first time that Ramsay exercised her talent in capturing ‘isolated, crystallised moments.’
Childhood and adolescent experiences are often perplexing and difficult, and it seems as though the girl, Anne-Marie, suffers a loss of innocence at the end of each segment. Ramsay has said that where she came from, children often grew up in ‘a tough environment but there was a lot of beauty too, in a sense.’ This statement is clearly dramatised through Small Deaths, where the visual imagery alone represents a striking juxtaposition between beauty and hardship. For example, in the second section Anne-Marie and her sister tumble around in a cornfield, the camera energetically swooping through grass and then high above the girls as they play. The tone shifts dramatically as they discover a dying cow that has been attacked by a group of young boys. The camera is suddenly very still as it shows the cow’s bleeding wounds in close-up, intercut with the girl’s sorrowful faces. The aggressive sounds of the boys’ attack on the cow are heard and then die away as the scene ends in silence.
Her second short, Kill the Day (1996), won her the French Grand Prix at the Brest European Short Film Festival and the Special Jury Award at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival. The film tells the story of a young man, James, who spends time in prison for theft. Ramsay poignantly portrays James's current entrapment by contrasting it with idyllic memories of his youth. He remembers playing by a river (again, in a cornfield) with two friends, and the scene almost reminds one of watching a home movie. The slight sepia glow of the image gives it a very soft, warm feel, as does the gentle rustle of crickets which is the only sound in the scene. This chorus of crickets then turns into the buzzing of a solitary fly as we cut to the next scene: James lies in his bed in his small, grey room, a far cry from the freedom expressed in his childhood memories.
Ramsay is known for using very little dialogue in her films, a lack of speech being particularly evident in Kill the Day, as there is only about a minute’s worth of dialogue during the 17-minute short. As someone so concerned and so accurate with her utilization of sound, she is especially selective when it comes to the inclusion of dialogue:
‘Sound is the other picture. When you show people a rough cut without the sound mix they are often really surprised. Sound creates a completely new world. With dialogue, people say a lot of things they don't mean. I like dialogue when it's used in a way when the body language says the complete opposite...I love great dialogue... but I think expositional dialogue is quite crass and not like real life.’
In her third short, Gasman, Ramsay shows just how effective a small amount of speech can be in a film that is free from excessive dialogue. A young girl, Lynne (played by Ramsay’s niece, Lynne Ramsay Jnr, who also features in Small Deaths and later in Ratcatcher) and her brother, Steven, are taken to a Christmas party by their father. On the way, their father meets a strange woman on the railway tracks who drops off two children: another boy and girl of a similar age to Lynne and Steven. Later, the party, which is aurally constructed of a mixture of energetic Christmas music, the laughter and cries of children and the occasional low mumbling of the adults talking in the background, is penetrated by Lynne’s distressed whine as she accuses the girl of ‘sitting on her daddy’s knee.’ Both the actress and director accurately portray the heartbreaking circumstance of a young child slowly realizing, but not yet fully understanding, something about her father that she’d rather not know. Gasman won Ramsay the Jury Prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival and Best Short Film at the Scottish BAFTAs, the Atlantic Film Festival and the Locarno International Film festival.