Criterion Month – Darkness and Light in the Opening Scene of ‘Ratcatcher’

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Lynne Ramsay’s first feature, the 1999 Ratcatcher, is a delicately handed portrait of impoverished Glasgow youth during the garbage strikes of the 1970s. In it, she viewed the council estate setting through the eyes of an auteur-in-the-making with bold colours and off-centre camera angles that take us into a new realm of social realism.

The film’s memorable first scene opens with a fade-in to a slow-motion close-up. The frame features an unknown figure spinning in a daisy-patterned white lace curtain. It feels like a domestic space, and the audience can assume it’s a child in the curtain. Their face is wrapped up in the lace, suggesting a sense of play but also the foreboding idea of asphyxiation – it’s a dark piece of imagery. This shot plays for nearly two minutes; the title credits slowly appear and disappear whilst the figure eerily dances on our screens to the distant and distorted sound of children playing. The child’s play is interrupted by a woman who slaps and hastily unravels him. Only her hands are in frame as she drags the young boy out of the curtains, scolding him for ruining them. This type of casual violence in the home is a social realist archetype that quickly sets the scene – working-class environments on film are often bleak, grey, and violent.

As the pair both leave the frame, the camera remains fixated on the curtain, slowly unwinding itself, an impactful sign of the undoing that is to come and befall the boy. In an interview with Criterion, Ramsay said, “that shot of the boy in the curtain was one of the first things I wrote in the script, and it was kind of a big deal for me.” She continued, “The boy opens the film, but then quickly [it’s clear that] he’s not the main character. It gives a sense of dread to the opening, and also a playfulness.” Having a single shot convey two polar opposite feelings, showing us both darkness and light simultaneously is just masterful.

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Following this, we get our first glimpse of the young boy. The natural light pouring in from the window illuminates his face; he’s a picturesque child, suggested by the significant framing of a portrait behind him. In this mid-shot we see the boy beside a famous, rather kitsch painting of a child; this reminds the audience of innocence and purity. As he looks longingly out of the window, his mother scolds him off-screen. When Ramsay cuts to his point of view, we see a boy playing in the stagnant waters of a disused canal. It is clear that our curtain-twirling kid would much rather join him then listen to his mother complain about the state of his shoes.

This point-of-view shot is framed by the very curtains we saw him tangled in, a looming reminder that we are not the ones outside and we are not the ones that get to play. It also suggests the domesticity that the curtains represent is the very thing keeping him here, perhaps an implication that his family life is not all that loving. Instead he feels trapped. We watch for a few brief seconds as the boy on the canal skims rocks along the water. Back inside, our boy’s mother drags him away from the window, away from the childhood he craves. The handheld camera follows as she sits him down on an armchair to tie his shoelaces properly. This is our first view of their home, an overpowering beige and brown landscape. Dark brown walls accompany a brown carpet and some floral beige furniture. This is not a lively home, and it certainly doesn’t feel like a family one.

His mother bemoans him for tucking in his shoelaces and not tying them, so he rebuts, “I’ll look stupid.” It’s clear now there are other children he’d like to impress or fit in with; perhaps the boy by the canal? He eventually gently kicks her away. “I’ll do it myself,” he says, showing that he wants some independence – both to tie his own laces and to play with his friends on the other side of the daisy lace curtains.

by Millicent Thomas

Millicent Thomas is a proud Mancunian studying Film & Publishing in Bath. She has written freelance for Little White Lies, Much Ado About Cinema, Reel Honey, and more. Her favourite films include Logan, Columbus, and Spy-Kids. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Letterboxd at @millicentonfilm

 

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