The phrase ‘quality over quantity’ is very apt in Lynne Ramsay’s case. Best known for her mercurial style and her ability to traverse mesmeric and hard reality, Ramsay has made as many films in the last twenty years as there are fingers on my hands (four features and six short films in total). Despite the short list, there is an endless amount of joy to be had deciphering the meaning embedded in each of her visually rich and captivating films.
Having trained as a photographer, Ramsay leans away from dialogue, instead narrating her films through visual details. For those following along to this series, you may have guessed that food is one of those details she uses to shed light on the motivations and dark interior of her characters’ minds. As a narrative device, food in her films provides a taste of the normal world and as a metaphor for her characters’ discontentment with that normality.
Unlike any of the other entries in the series, the food featured in Lynne Ramsay’s work will hardly whet anyone’s appetite. More often than not, her characters use food as a play thing, rather than as a means of sustenance – a yearning to escape the overwhelming normality of their world. When food is present, there is usually some conflict or disturbance in the periphery of the scene. They’re lost in daydreams, creating worlds out of piles of food in some vain effort to break free from the crushing tedium of their lives or from the painful reality that their lives have brought them.
In her short film, Gasman (1998) and debut feature, Ratcatcher (1999), recalcitrant children sketch patterns into mountains of sugar and salt while domestic arguments echoe from another room. In Ratcatcher, the promise of the new housing developments offers the young James (William Eadie) an escape from his family’s claustrophobic, working-class living conditions and his father’s abuse. In one scene, James sprinkles rice krispies over his father’s unconscious body as a form of a personally drastic protest.
In Morvern Callar (2002), the titular character (Samantha Morton) and her best friend create a blizzard of flour less than a meter away from where Morvern’s boyfriend had committed suicide. Haunted by the suicide of her boyfriend, she decides to use the money he set aside for his funeral to escape to Spain. At work, she stares at a worm boring into a rotten carrot, a reminder of the stain of death that lingers in her life.
In You Were Never Really Here (2017), suicidal army veteran-turned-hitman Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) crushes jellybeans between his fingers while being briefed on a young girl who has been abducted into sex trafficking. Ramsay leads us through the seedy world of child trafficking through the eyes of the mentally-fractured Joe. While it’s far from what most would call normal, to Joe it is simply a dark and mundane reality. At the climax of the film Joe lurches into the mansion of a well protected politician to save the young girl Nina (Ekaterina samsonov) only to find she has killed her captor and is eating dinner with her blood soaked hands. His dark reality has become her normality.
Perhaps Ramsay’s most disturbing work We Need to Talk About Kevin (2012), features the heaviest use of food. Eva’s (Tilda Swinton) idyllic globetrotting worklife is interrupted by her new role as a mother. As a child Kevin (Ezra Miller) uses food as a psychological weapon against his mother. In one scene, Kevin spits food onto a sandwich and splatters it on a coffee table in clear view of his mother, before excitedly running to his father’s arms after he arrives home from work. The uncleaned mess serves as a metaphor for the unaddressed issues between Eva and Kevin; the very thing that needs to be talked about. Further, the opening sequence depicts a young Eva at the La Tomatina festival in Spain in which people amass for a large tomato fight. The soundtrack of the sequence mixes cheers from the festival and screams of anguish from what we later discover to be a high school shooting perpetrated by Kevin. The screams, interspersed with the vibrant red imagery of tomatoes being hurled and splattered, allude to the shooting, which mars one of Eva’s most cherished memories with the harrowing reality that her own child could commit such an abhorrent, bloody crime.
As any fan of Ramsay’s will tell you, the answers to her visual indicators, like the inclusion of food in surprising moments, aren’t always obvious, but that’s where the beauty of her work lies. It’s as though she gives us enough pieces to the puzzle for us to fill in the blanks, without ever having that closure, that sense of finality, that other directors feel compelled to offer.
Tyrie Aspinall is a filmmaker, live visual artist, essayist and all round lover of movies based in Naarm (Melbourne). Since graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts with a BFA (Film and TV) Tyrie has developed multiple short films and freelance projects. Tyrie is drawn to the ineffable beauty of human imperfection; a subject of primal concern in his work.
If he’s not working or writing or re-watching Yojimbo, he’ll probably be out in his shed working on his analog Liquid Light Show. You can reach Tyrie at tyrieaspinall.com