Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay has it backward. In Ratcatcher, her debut feature, the 30-year-old director puts the climactic scene of the movie right at the beginning, neatly contravening basic rules of story structure. Her tale, about a working-class family‘s struggles, would be perfectly suited to the gritty social-realist look that characterizes much of British cinema.
Instead, Ramsay opts for jaw-droppingly gorgeous imagery that revels in detail. Set in Glasgow during the infamous 1978-79 garbage collectors’ strike that led to the toppling of Britain‘s Labour government, Ratcatcher follows 12-year-old James, a sensitive boy haunted by an accident involving his best friend and struggling to make sense of the world. His mother hides from the rent collector, and his father, a heavy drinker, seems always on the verge of exploding. To her credit, Ramsay doesn’t make these characters villains; they‘re fallible, but likable. James eventually finds solace with a slightly older girl, Margaret Anne, who shares his sense of alienation.
Ramsay likes to use the spaces people inhabit as a way of defining them. The mounds of garbage that grow as the story unfolds suggest James’ increasing frustation with his family and friends, while the field he escapes to one afternoon seems blissfully open and clean, a utopian dream. The cinematography (by Alwin Kuchler) paints a paradoxical portrait of beautiful squalor with a controlled palette of moody greens and muddy browns, and close-ups that move intimately, almost lovingly, into the claustrophobic world of the tenement flat.
Ramsay got her start in still photography and ended up making movies after she submitted a few of her pictures to the National Film and Television School. To her surprise, she was accepted. ”I liked films when I was a kid, but I was never a film buff,“ she says in her thick Glaswegian accent. ”The only films I knew were Hollywood films. I loved them, but I didn‘t have any desire to be a filmmaker.“ An introduction to the work of Maya Deren and Derek Jarman helped correct that, and just after Ramsay graduated, two of her short films won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. The prizes made it easier to find financing for her elliptical feature script for Ratcatcher.
Ramsay’s background in photography comes out when she talks about structuring the film, both in terms of the script and the visual design. ”I like placing the details in the forefront of the drama,“ she explains, ”which is the complete opposite of what you normally do in filmmaking, but it‘s what you do in photography. You make the detail the thing that’s intriguing.“ The director creates entire scenes that revolve around the nuances of a gesture or a moment of contemplation. In one of Ratcatcher‘s most powerful scenes, James combs lice from Margaret Anne’s hair, then they take a bath together. Ramsay keeps the camera still, letting the sense of intimacy build, as well as our awareness of just how naked these two actors are. ”I‘m interested in texture and space,“ continues Ramsay, ”and how people can live in this completely scarred landscape and still love each other. In terms of how I think visually, it’s more about things that are nonverbal. Little gestures say a lot, and there‘s logic in that. But overall, I’m playing with perception and what is perceived as horror and beauty. It‘s very dreamy, but then you’re slapped into harsh reality.“
It‘s tempting to place Ratcatcher in the larger history of social-realist filmmaking, but Ramsay bristles at the reduction. ”I hate it when the film’s addressed as part of a ‘working-class milieu,’ or when people say, ‘Oh, it’s one of those northern British kitchen-sink films,‘“ she says briskly. ”That’s where I came from, and I don‘t feel ashamed of it. And sometimes people are confused that I didn’t make a film that says it‘s so grim up north. I mean, hopefully there’s beauty in the film.“ Reality suffuses Ratcatcher, to be sure. But, as Ramsay notes, the movie is also shot through with a boy‘s sanguine daydreams and the stunning artistry of a filmmaker trying to find new ways to tell stories.