Small Deaths

Lynne Ramsay, 1996


ma and da; holy cow; joke. These inter-titles weave together Lynne Ramsay’s graduate project Small Deaths. The short film is a triptych: three moments in the life of Anne Marie, bound together through a series of "deaths". ma and da is a flicker of domesticity: a kitchen, a mother and father, a metaphoric "death" of their marriage. holy cow is a flicker of childhood: a bucolic countryside, sororal affection, an encounter with a dead cow. joke is a flicker of adolescence: a party, a crowded room, a faked overdose — death as a cruel façade. The "small" in Small Deaths reveals itself to be a flexible descriptor; its meaning is malleable, it shifts throughout each vignette. In each, death is elusive, difficult to grasp.


Ramsay’s 2002 Morvern Callar echoes this ambiguity. The film begins in medias res, with Morvern discovering that her writer-boyfriend has committed suicide; he left a note instructing Morvern to send his unpublished novel to a publisher; she erases his name and assigns her own. Death, author, life, rebirth.


A continual theme throughout Ramsay's work, death and its affective potential is crystallised in her debut, Small Deaths, in particular, holy cow. Situated in a sunny Le Bonheur-esque meadow, Anne Marie and her sister bicker and play amidst overgrown flora before chancing upon the corpse of a cow. Predicated by their gaiety, the girls are dignified by Ramsay’s camera; their slow and contemplative reaction to such a macabre sight is interspersed with close-ups of the cow’s decomposition. It is presumably here that the girls for the first time see death up close. Miniatures of death are spliced with images of life. Innocence is relished before it’s degraded; Anne Marie’s confrontation with death is a reckoning with her own fragility.


And yet, Anne Marie is more curious than disturbed. With a meditative focus on curvature, texture and flesh, the corpses of Ramsay’s filmography are discernibly photographic. In holy cow, Ramsay's anatomical gaze is childlike, it moves with unguarded fascination and asceticism.


Indeed, death — of the author, of childhood, of innocence — remains a curious shadow in Ramsay’s corpus. In Small Deaths, the image of death is an affronting jolt, a temptatious spectacle. It snakes through tall grass, stalking and circling Anne Marie's maturation, slipping in and out of sight.

Recent essays