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and Louis Pepe

In the six years since her vehement lead-role debut in Under the Skin, Samantha Morton has made a career of embodying young women who are alienated, alone, and anything but garrulous. As an empath who floats in an amniotic pool in Minority Report, she was only playing a more extreme version of her usual cloistered character. So Morton was the natural choice to play Morvern Callar, a young Scottish supermarket clerk who’s introduced in one of the bleaker opening sequences in cinema history: blankly contemplating her boyfriend’s corpse as it lies on the kitchen floor, illuminated by the lights of a miniature Christmas tree.

Like director Lynne Ramsay’s first feature, Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar is set in a Scotland that couldn’t be less quaint. Both films are fantasies of escape from desperate circumstances, whose desolation may illuminate the nonchalant suicide note James left for Morvern: “It just seemed like the right thing to do.” Because it’s Christmas Day, what seems like the right thing for Morvern to do is go out partying with her vivacious friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott, a nonprofessional who doesn’t hit a single false note). “Where’s Dostoevsky?” someone asks Morvern. “He’s at home,” she replies. “In the kitchen.”

Dostoevsky? Information is sparse in this taciturn film, which Ramsay and co-writer Liana Dognini adapted from Alan Warner’s 1995 novel. But it turns out that James was a writer, who left his girlfriend some money, a mix tape, and a copy of his just-finished novel. The suicide note tells Morvern what to do, but she doesn’t follow his wishes to the letter. For one thing, she puts her name on the title page before she sends the manuscript to a London publishing house. She also skips the funeral, instead telling everyone that James is “gone,” and disposing of his body secretly. Still, the mix tape maintains a connection between Morvern and her dead beau. She listens to the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Sticking With You,” and Lou Reed sings, “We swing past right and wrong” as she dismembers James’ body. (The camera is on Morvern, of course, not the corpse.)

Morvern puts the funeral money toward a package tour of Spain, where she and Lanna drink, dance, take drugs, pick up guys, and play the spring-break games devised to keep Brits entertained in warm climes. Lanna loves it, but Morvern soon tires of the desperate fun and insists they flee their hotel. They find themselves abandoned on a desert road, where they argue and split up. Back on the coast, Morvern meets with two representatives of the London publishing house, who have flown to Spain because they’re so excited about the novel she sent them. She manages to deal with them without revealing how little she knows about writing, publishing, or the book she supposedly wrote.

Because its heroine successfully poses as someone she isn’t, Morvern Callar plays a bit like a small-town Scottish version of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Yet Morvern isn’t homicidal—or even fundamentally dishonest. It seems that she lies simply because she doesn’t know how she feels about things. Unlike Morton’s character in Under the Skin—or such analogous meltdowners as Emily Watson’s in Breaking the Waves or Virginie Ledoyen’s in Cold Water—Morvern acts not out of profound emotion but because of its lack. The hip personal soundtrack provided by her late lover includes such contemporary acts as Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, and Broadcast (as well as trendy rediscoveries such as Can and Lee Hazlewood), yet Morvern is most like an adolescent female version of a mid-20th-century existential protagonist, more Lost Generation than Generation Y.

Not exactly oversupplied with plot, Ramsay’s assured but cryptic film essentially tracks the fallout from one event, which happens before the story even begins. It isn’t much of a character study, either: Morton gives Morvern a fascinating intensity but keeps most of her feelings hidden. Morvern Callar is essentially a mood piece, combining the mix-tape soundtrack, Alwin H. Kuchler’s neon-meets-chiaroscuro cinematography, and a handheld camera’s close observation of Morton into a powerful sense of intimacy. The movie gets as close to its namesake as possible without ever entering her inscrutable head.

If at first you don’t succeed, the completion-bond company will shut you down. Still, someone else could probably get a decent behind-the-scenes documentary out of your misfortune.

Actually, some of the most compelling docs about ill-fated location shoots concern movies that were, against nearly all odds, completed. Compared with Burden of Dreams and Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse—which observe the chaotic making of Fitzcarraldo and Apocalypse Now, respectively—Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s Lost in La Mancha is the tale of an amiable catastrophe. In part, that’s because Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was terminated after only six days of filming. But it’s also because Gilliam is more easygoing than Werner Herzog or Francis Ford Coppola. He does get mad when things go wrong, but he’s no Herzog—and neither of his aborted movie’s stars, Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort, can approach the mania of Klaus Kinski, Herzog’s longtime adversary and alter ego.

Ever since his Adventures of Baron Munchausen went dramatically over-budget in the late ’80s, Gilliam has labored under a film-biz reputation as a wastrel. In fact, his supporters say, the director works efficiently within the constraints of unrealistically scant budgets. One of his cohorts inevitably compares the director to Quixote in La Mancha, but another more persuasively calls him “a responsible enfant terrible.” Although Gilliam battled his way back into favor with 12 Monkeys and The Fisher King (whose co-star, Jeff Bridges, narrates this film), he stumbled again with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Don Quixote was perhaps not the best choice for a follow-up. As Fulton and Pepe note, the story had already defeated a brilliant director who also had trouble finishing his projects: Orson Welles.

La Mancha’s filmmakers offer a few amusing asides, including a pocket history of Gilliam’s relationship with Hollywood, rendered in the style of his Monty Python ‘toons, as well as animated sequences of Quixote and sidekick Sancho Panza—who in Gilliam’s version was to be supplanted by a time-traveling 21st-century resident played by Depp. Mostly, though, they follow the director and his crew through a series of tribulations. Madrid’s production facilities are judged inadequate at the last minute, and the actors are slow to arrive. (It’s never explained why the production assistants have such difficulty locating actress Vanessa Paradis when Depp—her longtime paramour—is on the set.) The first location, in a remote desert, turns out to be uncomfortably close to a NATO training ground, so shots are repeatedly ruined by the roar of F-16s. That problem vanishes, however, after torrential rain drives the crew from the site altogether. The location is not the only thing the filmmakers lose, however: Rochefort, who plays the title character, departs for Paris to consult his doctor about his severe back pain.

Unlike Fitzcarraldo and Apocalypse Now, which survived far worse, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote evaporates quickly. When Rochefort defects, the suits arrive and shut everything down. All that remains is Gilliam’s infectious glee—viewers who don’t walk out during the credits will find that the movie ends, aptly, with his cackle—and his plan to buy back his script and try again. Still, if Gilliam seems somewhat larger than life, Lost in La Mancha is hardly a tale of towering cinematic passion. Indeed, the moral of this rather businesslike debacle may be that there’s no longer any place for obsession in a film industry run by attorneys and actuaries. CP