We Need to Talk About Kevin

(Lynne Ramsay, UK/USA, 2011)


Another Girl, Another Planet


Not since the great days of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger has there been such red! Strong, sharp, insistent, bright red, deeper than Profondo Rosso (Dario Argento, 1975). But not a red that signifies one, dominant meaning or mood: lust or hysteria, danger or embarrassment, death or birth. The red of We Need to Talk About Kevin moves, mutates, jumps relentlessly from one scene to the next (sometimes on a direct cut, sometimes not), pokes you in the eye every time as it shoots into the foreground of a shot or scene. Red is the de facto principal character of the movie: in tomatoes, paint, traffic lights, posters, police and ambulance vans. And it performs a wide range of actions: it pulses, stains, sticks, attacks, blinds …


Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher [1999] and Morvern Callar [2003]) is a truly untimely director – out of time and, it seems, out of place, too. Her taste for associative flashbacks, for scrambled chronology, for moment-to-moment intrigue and suspense, for thick irony, for style as the supreme vehicle of sensation, takes us back to Nicolas Roeg or, before that, Alain Resnais. There is also something mighty unseemly and unfeminine going on here, at least in terms of the standard, genteel construction of who and what a female director should be these days: the aggressive construction, the ceaseless barrage of shock effects, the willingness to go to the point of excess on all levels, these traits voyage way beyond any punctual taste for transgression in Agnès Varda, Jane Campion or Sally Potter (and exist in a different universe to the niceties of Nadine Labaki, Naomi Kawase or Diane Keaton). A comparison with Asia Argento (The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, 2004), Virginie Despentes (Baise-moi, 2000) or Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg, 2010) gets us closer to the mark – Ramsay is working at a high level of cinematic proficiency, virtuosity and sheer kinetic/visceral impact. She can stand with Stanley Kubrick or Krzysztof Kieślowski.


Ramsay has always set out to provoke, disturb and disquiet – while at the same time marrying this drive with a very jolly, British sense of exhilaration, even an odd kind of fun. The satirical vein in her work – often directed (as in John Cassavetes) against the world’s army of mediocrities, the dull bureaucrats, public officials and everyday gatekeepers of consensus taste and decency – heightens its truly postmodern feeling, and hastens its dismissal in many critical quarters: Ramsay suffers, more than most, the reflex Cahiers du cinéma-line that “she just doesn’t love her characters”. Wouldn’t you know it: dreary, finger-wagging Humanism still rules, after all these years!


In fact, Ramsay is more on the side of the Alien than the Human. Just look at the faces and bodies of Samantha Morton in Morvern Callar and Tilda Swinton here, look at how she lights and angles and shoots them: they’re from another planet. And Swinton as Eva meets her match in the even more profoundly alien creature sprung from her loins, Kevin (Jasper Newell/Ezra Miller). Between them – for this is a profoundly intersubjective work – a sort of Lacanian logic rules: every anxiety, every phantasm, every desire that has ever ignited inside Eva is intuited, with uncanny precision, by the impossible Kevin, and then ingeniously turned against her, creating a contract and a dance that is eternally painful to behold.


Kevin is a very good case of a film that is not about what it first seems to be about. Everything takes you to the starting-gate of this movie expecting some kind of treatise (a didactic one, Polytechnique [Denis Villeneuve, 2009]-style, or even a cryptic one, Elephant-style) on the teenage serial killer: is he a sociopath with a chemical imbalance, a tragic case of a dysfunctional kid raised badly, or a product of his media-mad society? No, Ramsay is determined to focus on one thing above all: the figure of Eva as an “unfitting” wife and mother – unfit, therefore, in the eyes of society, to even be a grown-up woman. Those who try to overlook or dismiss, in the film’s schema, the centrality of Eva’s powerful desires (to get away, to recapture the ecstasy of her youth and her love, to have a “room of her own”), and her equally powerful hatreds (of the maternal role, of the endless frustrations Kevin puts in her path, and sometimes of Kevin himself) are in denial about what makes this work so forceful and significant.


Ramsay loves to plunge us into an amoral space where the normally unthinkable must now, suddenly, become thinkable. In Morvern Callar, she had already created a heroine whose attitudes to sex, death and money were resolutely inscrutable, if not utterly unspeakable. Kevin reaches even deeper into a primal taboo: the sanctity of motherhood. It tears this figure apart, not so much to critique it from some high-political distance, but so as to return us to the magma of every individual human being who has to cope with this world: the abject deposits and fluids, the niggly neuroses, the interrupted discharges, the aborted circuits of interrelationship. More than any 3D movie past or present, Ramsay creates an immersive cinema.

© Adrian Martin March 2012

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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