Lynne Ramsay's stark 'Kevin' gets Cannes talking

Associated Press
Actress Tilda Swinton poses during a photo call for We Need to Talk About Kevin, at the 64th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Thursday, May 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)
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Actress Tilda Swinton poses during a photo call for We Need to Talk About Kevin, at the 64th international …

Everybody at Cannes is talking about "We Need to Talk About Kevin," and director Lynne Ramsay is not surprised at the strong reaction.

It is, after all, about a teenager who commits a school massacre, and his mother's bottomless grief.

Some are calling it wrenching, or bleak, or poetic. But Ramsay can't understand why anyone would call it violent.

She sees it as "a psychological horror film." As in the best chillers, the real horror is in our minds.

"There's no violence in this film," Ramsay told reporters Thursday after the film's first Cannes Film Festival screening. "You only see aftermath. Every Hollywood movie is more violent than this."

Ramsay also is wary of comparisons to other films that deal with youth violence, such as Gus van Sant's Columbine-inspired "Elephant," which took Cannes' top prize, the Palme d'Or, in 2003.

"'Elephant' is a film about a high school shooting," Ramsay said. "This is a film about a mother and son."

The intimacy of that maternal bond may explain why "Kevin" is making some viewers uncomfortable. The film stars Tilda Swinton as Eva, a woman numb with grief and guilt, constantly replaying her son's childhood for clues about why he went on a murderous spree — and whether it is her fault.

"The whole film is about guilt," Ramsay said.

Swinton said the character is haunted by the idea that in her son she is "giving birth to her own violence."

"It's like a nightmare scenario, but it's not that far from the everyday experience of being a parent," said Swinton, an Academy Award winner for "Michael Clayton" whose unflinching performance makes her an early favorite for Cannes' best actress trophy.

"It's a bloody business, having a family," said Swinton, the mother of teenage twins. "It's certainly a very bloody business being a parent, and it's a really bloody business being a child."

As visually lush as it is emotionally bleak, the film spills gallons of red liquid — almost none of it blood. There's the red paint splashed across Eva's house by tormenters, and, in a visually arresting open sequence, the vast scarlet food fight that is the Tomato Festival in Bunol, Spain.

The effect, for the film's fans, is as disorienting and vivid as a nightmare.

It has its detractors, too, but co-screenwriter Rory Stewart Kinnear — who is married to Ramsay — said the film goes where many others fear to tread.

"I think the idea of a mother not loving her son is one of the last taboos, and something people don't want to talk about," he said.

Based on the novel by British-resident American writer Lionel Shriver — Ramsay prefers to say "inspired" by the book rather than adapted from it — "Kevin" is the only British entry among 20 films battling for the Palme d'or.

It has a Scottish director and star in Ramsay and Swinton, but is set in the suburban U.S. and features American actors John. C. Reilly, as Eva's well-meaning husband, and 18-year-old Ezra Miller as Kevin.

Ramsay made a splash at Cannes in 1999 with her grittily poetic debut feature, "Ratcatcher." Her second, 2002's "Morvern Callar," also won praise, but she then spent five years working on an adaptation of "The Lovely Bones" before the film was handed to "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson.

"Kevin" is her first feature in nine years. But Ramsay says she doesn't feel like she has been away for a long time.

"I've made three films in my head" since then, she said, "so it feels like a seventh film for me."

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