Ratcatcher Lynne Ramsey (UK; 1999) William Eadie, Tommy Flanagan, Mandy Matthews
viewed Mubi 14 Jan 2021
‘Ratcatcher’s’ opening shot is a slow motion long duration close up of a young lad as he twines and twists a net curtain around his head, surrendering to the immediacy of the moment. Seeing his visage through the delicate tracery of the lace, the boy’s image calls to mind the experience of an archaeologist who on removing the last bandages from a mummified corpse, catches a momentary glimpse of its face last seen thousands of years back, which then almost immediately turns to dust.
Lynne Ramsey’s ‘Ratcatcher’ sets its stall out from the beginning as a quasi mythical recasting, a re-representation of life in the slums of Glasgow. The poverty, the trampled lives, the daily struggle are all represented in this milieu. But they are not her central focus. Her concern is to express this place not so much for what makes it particular but rather for the universal psychic qualities it shares with human experience No matter that this is neither Ancient Greece nor ancestral Alba. But look, here in the Glaswegian tenements there’s a primordial landscape in which archetypal characters play out myriad variations of mythic themes.
Running at the back of the old tenement blocks is a living river. Its spirits have coursed through the lives of all who have ever lived here. It’s a stream that in particular attracts and holds the young in its traces. These waters are an ever present motif coursing through the film which is set in the 1970’s. A time when the long strike of the rubbish men causes huge piles of black bags to pile up in the tenements and from the river comes the visitation of a plague of rats upon the people.
‘Ratcatcher’s’ scenario is set in an unstable in-between time. A time between heaven and earth, between movement out of the old slum built by the river into the new arcadian housing development built by fields of barley. A drama is played out in the opposition between the old river gods of the slum and the coming gods of the new estate, a citadel of hope built close to the fruits of the earth. Abandoned, the old river gods demand a human life and claim as their victim, Ryan the young boy seen in the first shot already shrouded as if preparing for his own sacrifice, his drowning in the waters.
Ramsey’s script is a patchwork of themes and mythical strips that interlink to provide a mosaic like depiction of her subject. She doesn’t use narrative. ‘Ratcatcher’ is an impressionistic imprint of evanescent experiences which nevertheless like the face of the mummy suddenly exposed to air, leave an indelible psychic scar. Her guide over and beyond the Styx is Jamie. In the script Jamie is fitted out with a full family but from way in which he moves through the scenario, Jamie is an orphan archetype whose fate is not linked to the past but is determined by other cosmic forces. Jamie in the Celtic tradition is accorded the status of seer, one who is guided by visions and dreams. Ramsey occasionally uses point of view shots, but mainly we watch Jamie, the object of the camera, as he moves through space and time entering into relations of life and death.
Scouring the land, patrolling the river are the Glaswegian gangs. Violent unpredictible hunters re-incarnates of the Fenians bands or Tuartha, but with nothing to hunt, they vent their warrior frustration on whatever crosses their path. The central female character is the young post-pubescent girl who takes on the opposing roles of sacred prostitute and virgin bride. Whore to the Fenians but sacred virgin to the chaste James who like Finn macCoul relates to seeing as much as to being. As Jamie’s dad becomes a ‘hero’, the river yields life in the form of fish insects and rats, so Jamie sees the escape to the newly constructed housing estate on the edge of town, surrounded by fields of gold. But as we see images of the gorgeous wind swept barley, and the last image of the film sees the family running through it, the thought occurs that the mythic cannot be avoided by simple re-location. In the midst of the fields although they have escaped the river gods ands spirits, John Barleycorn lies in wait.
There will be those who watch this film and be troubled by Ramsey’s assembly of mythic types in the slums of Glasgow. In particular her depiction of the young girl, whore and virgin. However it seems to be a core premise of her movie that she is not setting ‘Ratcatcher’ up as a judgement machine. ‘Ratcatcher’ sets itself to catch something else, physic reverberations. Ramsey is looking at reflections in the mirror of life and understanding these as archetypal images not ideals: violent gangs as deterritorialised Fenians, child whores, boy seers. All existing in this microcosm of a Glaswegian slum in phantom archaic form that stand apart from political correctness or conventional values.