Ratcatcher (1999)

Lynne Ramsay | 1hr 34min

The Glaswegian streets of Ratcatcher are infested. Rats, garbage bags, even children, who themselves are crawling with nits – this working-class suburb of Scotland is a plague-ridden, inescapable hellhole. Especially with the garbage men on strike, such scourges only continue to spread like a cancer, until they simply become extensions of everyone’s homes. Plastic bags of rubbish turn into sofas, and chasing rats becomes a hobby for those disillusioned youths with nothing else to do. Lynne Ramsay’s vision of blue-collar Scotland in the 1970s is evocative of a bygone era of childlike innocence, but to call it nostalgic by any means would be a stretch.

The garbage bags of Ratcatcher growing in number, ridden all through Ramsay’s mise-en-scène.

Even though the free-flowing, lyrical editing and structure of Ratcatcher does evoke a pacing not unlike Terence Davies’ autobiographical tribute to the British working class, Distant Voices, Still Lives, it has far more in common with the Italian neorealist films of the 1940s and 50s. James Gillespie is the 12-year-old boy who is introduced as the vessel through which we experience this world, and yet despite his age, he does not stand as a beacon of innocence. Any chance that that might be the case is stripped early on when he inadvertently commits a devastating act that weighs heavy on his soul, instilling in him such an unbearable guilt that only feeds his desire to escape this dreary, infested world that promises nothing but decay.

As for what brings about this deterioration, Ramsay doesn’t position James as so much of a victim as he is one of many agents perpetuating society’s slow, repulsive descent into corruption and squalor. Just a few days ago, his conscience was unmarked, and in his suffering, he could at least place the blame on his environment. Now, he is as good as one of those rats, spreading disease and filth wherever he goes. In this self-identification, he displays much empathy for the loathsome vermin overrunning the streets of Glasgow, who surely dream of some faraway utopia, just as he does.

Breaks of magic realism in this otherwise gritty, neorealist narrative.

As Ramsay has proven in the years since this debut, she is primarily a director who finds her film in the editing room, crafting montages that offer a tint of hypnotic delicacy to otherwise harsh environments. It is particularly in three brief, escapist interludes where she breaks the heavy realism of Ratcatcher to allow her characters some indulgence in a magical realist fantasy, and lets the film disappear into the light rhythms of her cutting. There aren’t a great deal of picturesque images to be found in this film, as Ramsay is clearly more committed to the rundown architecture of the setting, and yet in these moments of wonder she finds the time to linger on a window frame opening up onto a field of wheat, or in the melancholy conclusion, sitting with a body hanging in stasis beneath the surface of a murky canal.

Ramsay finding a charming frame within this window, far away from the garbage bags and rats of the city.

In this suffocating imagery, Ramsay calls back to the opening shot of James wrapping himself up in a curtain in slow-motion. In her persistent motif of infested landscapes, burying oneself deeper into the all-consuming anathema is often the only practical way one might dull one’s senses to it. Sure, there is always the dream of finally floating away to some paradise on the moon, or moving away to a brand-new, upper-class estate. But in the agonising existence of Scotland’s lower classes, Ratcatcher recognises the disheartening disparity between such pipe dreams and reality.

A return to paradise, once again caught through a window.

Ratcatcher is currently streaming on Mubi Australia.

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