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In a static, slow-motion shot, a small boy, Ryan (Thomas McTaggart), turns while wrapping himself in a white curtain decorated with flower patterns. The sound - faded, distorted, as if coming from a distant place - takes the child's subjective perspective. We might imagine this is how babies sense the exterior world when they are in their mothers' wombs - or how bodies experience the last moments before death's embrace. Suddenly, Ryan's mother (Jackie Quinn) hits his head, and her angry voice reprimands him. Sound and movement recover their realistic character. When both figures leave the frame, the camera remains in the same position, showing how the curtain slowly unravels. Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher (1999) opens - as her best-known feature, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), also does - with the camera fixated on this curtain: a veil between the real, material world and the inner depths of dream and fantasy.

In hindsight, this opening sequence seems to prefigure through the perfectly banal act of a child playing with whatever is at hand - the film's major dramatic incident, taking place only minutes later, when Ryan accidentally drowns in a canal while playing with young James (William Eadie). This latter moment, however, isn't underlined in any conventional way. Ramsay refuses to signal in advance its weight or importance. Tragedy simply happens, without warning, in the midst of a tussle between kids. Its depiction is filled with the uncertainty and confusion of the moment. As if aligned with James' psyche, the camera remains unable to react, paralysed with fear. For a brief moment, the camera (in a startled movement) seems to grasp the gravity of the situation; but, as soon as this happens, it also tries to deny this truth, and realigns itself with James. The boy erases his presence from the place and runs home. His secret will become the great 'untold' of the film; he will try to keep the memories of this day separate from his conscious thought, but these recollections will return in different variations and mirrorings throughout Ratcatcher.

Ramsay's cinema is obsessed with these kinds of traumatic experiences - often relating to death - of discovery and realisation, and of subsequent grief and guilt. At the start of her second feature, Morvern Callar (2002), the principal character after whom the film is named (played by Samantha Morton) wakes up next to the corpse of her boyfriend. After drifting along blankly for a while in the days that follow, she suddenly, impulsively decides to put her own name on the novel manuscript left behind by the man. This kicks off an aimless but exciting holiday adventure for Morvern, leading to various encounters and entanglements. Nothing is ever spelt out explicitly to us: neither the reasons for her lover's death, nor what is truly going on inside Morvern's head. She seems to live only for restless movement, visceral stimulation, brightly coloured distraction.

Morvern shares this trait with other, equally troubled protagonists in Ramsay's filmic universe. In her most recent work, You Were Never Really Here (2017), a hired killer - like Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) - decides to turn the tables on the criminal underworld and use his deadly skills to rescue girls from the sex-trafficking trade. But, once again, the seeming 'straight line' of his actions and motivations is continually clouded by flashbacks to his being abused as a child by his father, and by his recurring fantasies of suicide.

It is precisely in her films' crucial scenes of trauma that the core of Ramsay's cinematic approach becomes clear. The more observational, non-interventionist side of her style is torn apart by the characters' subjective experience: the contours of the real world disappear, its sharpness recedes, sound fades, the camera moves hypnotically as in a trance and the whole film becomes a protective membrane, a defence mechanism for the protagonist's psyche. And, in turn, this 'now'-ness of subjective experience which can make us forget how tightly plotted Ramsay's narratives really are - is also pierced by an exterior knowledge, because the parallel montage that joins different actions happening at the same time in distinct places marks the fateful connection between certain events. The enigmatic, mysterious and unsettling aura of these traumatic experiences comes, precisely, from the undulating, ever-shifting perspective: this tension is at the core of Ramsay's work as a filmmaker, and it creates a dynamic equilibrium that is among the most rigorous traits of her narrative style.

In his book Mise en Scene and Film Style, critic Adrian Martin offers another account of the opening moments of Ratcatcher. He, too, focuses on the tension between diverse levels or viewpoints that is constitutive of Ramsay's approach to cinema. Alongside the subjective reverie of the child's dreamy experience and the cold, hard, intrusive realism introduced by the mother's slap, there is also something more, he argues:

For myself, I see three things, three worlds at play during these sublime 100 seconds of Ratcatcher. Inner world, then outer world, then... what?As the curtain unfurls and as we are allowed to gaze at it, with the fiction (for a moment) in abeyance off-screen, we become acutely aware of the film as its own world, its own gaze, its own sensual experience. Or, to put it another way, we pass from an 'inner eye' [...] to a rough, external, judging gaze (that of the world), and hnally to the camera eye, offering us something that is beyond the jurisdiction of either of the other two 'looks'. (1)

Transitional space

The environments and characters of Ramsay's films (and especially Ratcatcher) might prompt us to automatically link her with the social-realist movement in cinema that is usually associated with filmmakers like the UK's Ken Loach or Belgium's Dardenne brothers. She is, however, on a completely different path from theirs. Her movies are less concerned with denouncing social situations and structures than with creating a space for genuine understanding and co-experience. This doesn't mean that her films are empty of critique, but there isn't a programmatic political agenda behind them. Her characters are never mere instruments of their environment; their depictions are refreshingly non-judgemental. In truth, what seems to drive her passion as a filmmaker is the presentation of a certain sense of intimacy (in relations with other people, and with oneself).

In Ratcatcher, Ramsay appears to fully enjoy depicting domestic, familial, everyday rituals; the ties between members of a neighbourhood; and the birth of a friendship between James and Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen). She finds unexpected expressions of joy, tenderness and warmth in the most quotidian gestures, and a feeling of bonding that springs up despite all the fights and arguments, the negativity and discontent. At the same time, Ramsay is also driven to convey those thoughts and emotions that belong only to each of us, that sculpt our unreachable individuality.

In her valuable work on Ratcatcher, scholar Annette Kuhn has suggested a particular psychological or psychoanalytic framework within which Ramsay's complex vision can be appreciated. This framework is largely derived from the clinical writings of Donald Winnicott, a pioneer in the field of what is known as 'object relations' psychology and (more broadly) developmental psychology, with special emphasis on child development. Although Winnicott never himself addressed cinema or other visual arts, his ideas are peculiarly cinematic in substance, because they centre on the child's experience of space and place, the role of special props and objects (such as toys), and the drama of movement into unknown territory (or anxious withdrawal from it).

The essential thrust of Winnicott's account is that every child needs these kinds of projective experiences - marking their gradual immersion in and negotiation of the real world outside their internal fantasies - in order to gradually 'find their way' and their place in that world. A successful transition needs to occur between the inner world of imagination and the outer world of reality. For this process, the child requires external props, objects or sites that are situated midway between a personal, private sphere ('imaginary friends', for instance) and the public sphere of daily, communal life (family, school, work and so on). Yet the external realm never simply usurps our internal, imaginative lives; these multiple worlds lead a complex coexistence throughout all of our years, and a 'bad passage' can lead, at any moment, to crisis, dysfunction or psychotic breakdown. The possibility of sudden regression always threatens and looms - as it frequently does for Ramsay's central characters.

In this 'Winnicottian' vein, Kuhn suggests that Ratcatcher explores inner, psychical realities as well as outer, social ones and indeed explores each in relation to the other. It is actually the interplay of, and the passage between, real and imaginal spaces that gives this film its peculiar intensity. In fact, Ratcatcher's very topos is arguably Winnicottian transitional space, and its trajectory the potentially difficult negotiation of inner and outer worlds that Winnicott regards as a defining feature of human existence. Interestingly, the director herself has said as much: 'I like moving from... mesmeric to hard reality; from internal reality to outside world; from internal... to observational.' (2)

Ramsay has always been interested in the ways in which her characters' physical itineraries interact with the crucial encounters they have and the discoveries they make. In her magnificent short Gasman. (1998), this itinerary - a journey, back and forth, alongside a railroad, from hearth and home to a Christmas party in a pub - not only frames the central, dramatic situation but also shapes a traumatic milestone in the growing-up process of Lynne (Lynne Ramsay Jr): the discovery that she shares her father with another family. (3) Some of Ratcatcher's best moments involve several visits by James to an unknown place where new, as-yet uninhabited houses are being constructed. James deduces - and the movie never either confirms or denies this - that these are the houses where he and his family will move in to, if the council accepts their relocation application.

When, in Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth (2006) - revolving around the demolition of the extremely poor neighbourhood of Fontainhas in Lisbon - Ventura (an elderly Cabo Verdean immigrant playing himself) is relocated to a newly assigned house, he feels like a phantom, uninvited. In contrast with the slums of Fontamhas, where stories, dreams and lives are imprinted on the walls, these new houses - which look almost extraterrestrial and feel existentially empty - crush Ventura with their white, impolite plastering and high ceilings. At the other extreme, for James in Ratcatcher, the possibility of relocation gives rise to an overwhelmingly positive experience: as the bus advances, the landscape changes, opening up a new space freed from the claustrophobia of his familiar neighbourhood.

Free as fields, grey as ruins

While the protagonists of Morvern Callar and We Need to Talk About Kevin need to travel to distant countries and immerse themselves in foreign languages and cultures, it is enough for James to move a few miles away in order to suddenly feel that his world is being exponentially enlarged. In the great expanse of fields where earth and sky meet, he runs and frolics, filled with an unexpected sense of joy and beauty. There's something very Terrence Malick-like in these moments, and Ramsay is undoubtedly aware of it: not only does the Carl Orff music used in Malick's Badlands (1973) make an appearance during a mouse's voyage to the moon (one of the film's most memorable and surreal sequences), but a particular passage from his Days of Heaven (1978) - with the characters transporting domestic props and furniture across the fields - also seems to have been the main inspiration for Ratcatcher's dreamy ending.

But it is Roberto Rossellini's Germany Year Zero (1948) that resonates most in Ratcatcher, to the point that Ramsay's feature debut can seem like a very clever loose remake of it. A postwar Berlin in ruins has been substituted here for a suburb of Glasgow infested with rats during a garbage strike. Like Edmund (Edmund Moeschke) in Rossellini's movie, James is in a perpetual state of wandering; the mortal secret he holds plunges him into a loneliness that cannot be shared. His eyes register moments that will become scars, and his external actions are the only door to his troubled inner self. He is in pain but unable to tell where it hurts - unable to articulate the words or utter a cry for help. The final sections of both films are constructed as journeys towards a progressive recognition, towards the full acknowledgement of an unbearable responsibility.

Kuhn, for her part, places Ratcatcher in an international network of notable films about childhood experience that includes Alexander Mackendrick's Mandy (1952) from the UK and Abbas Kiarostami's Where Is the Friend's Home? (1987) from Iran. 'Despite their outward differences,' she observes, 'they have something in common that might repay investigation."' The differences she refers to include differences in form and style: Mackendrick uses a traditional, classical method of storytelling and Kiarostami deploys a minimalistic, neo-realistic approach that is closer to an anecdotal fairytale, while Ramsay invests her creative energy in the dense texture of each singular moment that passes by on screen (Rossellini, meanwhile, favours an elliptical and episodic structure). Yet, in each case, the central child's anxious need to negotiate objects and spaces remains constant. Kuhn evokes a famous motif in Kiarostami's film:

The signature shot of Where is the Friend's Home? is a strikingly composed image of a zigzag uphill path that marks the start of each of Ahmed's [Babek Ahmed Poor] three journeys away from Koker, lending a ritual quality to this exploration of a child's geography: his leaving and rejoining of security, his incessant coming and going, his going exploring beyond a permitted, secure, spatial range. In this single, repeated, image is condensed the very psychodynamics of cultural experience as a negotiation and inhabiting of 'spaces between.' (5)

Apart from the spaces of nature (such as fields and mountains), there are, however, the built (and destroyed) spaces of civilisation, and these tend to carry a very different signification. The devastated city landscapes in such films work as a reflection of the soul; the guilt and shame explode when others pronounce the blame of the protagonists. A series of incidents - the father's funeral in Germany Year Zero, the heroic actions of James' dad (Tommy Flanagan) in Ratcatcher- becomes a fatalistic mirror that confronts both boys with their actions, or their inability to take action. Edmund feels definitively expelled from the world when he is rejected by the other children; James finds the doors of his personal paradise locked.

If, in the first visit to the new houses in Ratcatcher, the camera magically transcends the walls and flies with James to the beyond - him and character entangled in a perfect harmony - then here, in this second visit, James cannot penetrate the site and the camera remains inside, as a gatekeeper, while rain pours down on the child. The extremely bleak ending of Germany Year Zero is expanded here, again with a Malickian touch; a hell on Earth gives rise to an imaginary Eden that springs from James' sincerest, innermost desire.


Cristina Alvarez Lopez is a Spanish film critic. She's the co-founder of the online magazine Transit: Cine y otros desvibs, and her articles and audiovisual essays have appeared in Notebook Sight & Sound. De Filmkrant. Trafic. LOLA. Screening the Past, The Third Rail and [in]Transition. She has contributed to books on Chantal Akerman. Paul Schrader. Max Ophuls. Bong Joon-ho and Philippe Garrel, and has collaborated on a range of DVD extras and booklets. She has also presented workshops and courses on film and film criticism in schools and universities.


(1) Adrian Martin, Mise en Scene and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2014, p. 88, emphasis in original.

(2) Annette Kuhn, 'Cinematic Experience, Film Space, and the Child's World', Canadian Journal of Film Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, Fall 2010, pp. 92-3. Kuhn is also the author of a book in the British Film Institute's 'Film Classics' series on Ratcatcher.

(3) See Cristina Alvarez Lopez, 'Foreplays #2: Lynne Ramsay's Gasman, Notebook, 3 July 2017, <>, accessed 6 September 2019.

(4) Kuhn, op. cit., p. 89.

(5) ibid., p. 90.
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Author:Lopez, Cristina Alvarez
Publication:Screen Education
Date:Dec 1, 2019
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