Director Lynne Ramsay’s second major feature film after the critically acclaimed 1999 drama, Ratcatcher, was Morvern Callar. When she finds her boyfriend has committed suicide on their kitchen floor, the emotionally unstable Morvern decides not to tell anyone. Instead she disposes of his body, uses his funeral fund to travel through Spain and attempts to get his debut novel published under her own name.
The film was submitted to the BBFC for classification in May 2002 and viewed by examiners who felt that the major classification issues were language, a sex scene and some bloody images.
As the film contains multiple uses of the word ‘f**k’, the examiners were clear that the 15 was the most suitable category. The BBFC Guidelines of 2000-2005 stated that at 12 ‘the use of strong language … should be rare and must be justified by context’ while at 15 ‘there may be frequent use of strong language’.
The public consultation process for the Guidelines, published in the 1999 report 'Sense and Sensibilities: Public Opinion and the BBFC Guidelines', had shown that the extent of offence caused by bad language varies according to such matters as age, background and beliefs. It was, therefore, impossible to come up with a ‘laundry list’ of words that were or were not acceptable at each category. General opinion did, however, suggest that at 15 the use of strong language such as ‘f**k’ was not of particular concern and that multiple uses were acceptable at that category provided there was not ‘continued aggressive use’ of the word. Public opinion on this matter does not seem to have changed much since 1999, as the consultation process for the current BBFC Guidelines led to the 15 category once again allowing the ‘frequent use of strong language’.
At 15 the BBFC Guidelines also allowed for sex scenes and nudity as long as there was no ‘strong detail’. Morvern Callar contains several moments of nudity that the BBFC often call ‘natural’. This means that the nudity occurs at a time where there is nothing sexual happening on screen. In Morvern Callar this happens when Morvern is seen taking a bath, or where some women remove their tops to sunbathe round the swimming pool at a Spanish hotel.
There is also some ‘sexualised nudity’ in the film as Morvern and a young man dance around a hotel room naked and are then seen to have sex against a wall. During the sex only the man’s bare buttocks are visible and as the scene is a short one, it was considered to lack the ‘strong detail’ that, had it been present, might have meant the 18 category was more suitable.
The suicide of Morvern’s boyfriend has already occurred before the film starts and the audience only ever sees his slightly bloody wrists and some blood on the floor near his body. As there is no focus on the actual act of wrist cutting or the wounds, these moments fit comfortably under the BBFC Guidelines at 15 which allow for strong violence which does not ‘dwell on the ‘infliction of pain or injuries’. The same is true for the scene later in the film when Morvern cuts up the body in the bath. The actual process of cutting remains hidden below the edge of the frame with a few small splashes of blood on Morvern’s arm being the only indication of what is happening.
All of the issues discussed above were felt to be the key points that determined the classification of the film and drove the decision to place it at the 15 category. As such, these were included in the film’s BBFCinsight which read ‘Contains strong language, moderate sex and some bloody images’.
However, there were a few other issues that the examiners mentioned in their reports on the film. These included the sight of Morvern and her friend Lana taking some unidentified pills before a night out and later, while on holiday in Spain, talking about taking some ‘E’, or ecstasy. Drug taking was not considered to be a major theme in the film and the depiction of drug use did not go beyond the BBFC Guidelines allowance at 15 that says ‘drug taking may be shown but clear instructive detail is unacceptable. The film as a whole must not promote or encourage drug use’.
When examining films the BBFC has to watch out for anything that might break British laws. One such law is The Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act, originally placed on the statute books in 1937. This Act means that it is illegal to show any scene that involves animal cruelty that has been ‘organised or directed’ for the specific purpose of making the film. When viewing a scene that may potentially break this law an examiner has to ask many questions including:
• Was the scene created specifically for the purposes of this film?
• Does the animal involved fit the definition of ‘animal’ laid out in the Act? (ie horses are animals but worms are not)
• has there been any cruel infliction of pain or terror on the animal or had it been cruelly goaded to fury?
If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’ then, the film has not broken any law. If the answer is ‘yes’ to any, then the examiners can ask the film-makers to provide assurances that the scene was shot in a way that did not involve actual cruelty. If such assurances are not received or are not satisfactory then the BBFC can ask for cuts to be made to remove those scenes that involve cruelty.
In Morvern Callar the questions listed above were applied to a scene in which Morvern and Lana come across a festival in a small Spanish town. During the festival parade a bull is seen being pulled around by ropes tied to its horns before several of the townspeople surround it, pulling and pushing it through a square. The examiners were quickly convinced that this festival had not been staged by the film-makers but was a celebration that would have happened regardless of whether the film crew had been there or not. As it was not a scene that had been created especially for the film, then the questions of whether the treatment of the bull was cruel or not did not need to be asked and the scene could be passed without cuts.
Finally, examiners also make a note in their report when films contain flashing lights that might be considered ‘strobing’. These lights could potentially cause seizures in people with photo-sensitive epilepsy. In Morvern Callar some flashing lights were noted in a scene where Morvern visits a Spanish nightclub and joins in on the dance- floor. While the BBFC does not directly intervene when ‘strobing’ is present, the Board will send a letter to the company distributing the film pointing out that potential ‘strobing’ has been noticed and that they might want to attach warnings to the film or DVD in order to protect susceptible viewers.
The video version of Morvern Callar was also rated 15 in August 2002.