Sundance: How the movie ‘Cat Person’ ruins the New Yorker tale

Sundance: How the movie ‘Cat Person’ ruins the New Yorker tale

At the end of “Cat Person,” the much-talked-about new movie that was adapted from Kristen Roupenian’s 2017 short story of the same title, an ugly one-word text message appears in startling close-up, filling the screen. screen. You’ll know what the word is if you’ve read the story, and there’s a good chance you have, since it’s one of the most widely circulated and fiercely debated pieces of fiction published by the New Yorker in recent memory.

Still, judging by the gasps that greeted that word at the film’s Sundance Film Festival premiere on Saturday night, there were clearly plenty in the audience who hadn’t. Presumably they were also unaware that the word is also the last word in Roupenian’s story, which, unlike the film, doesn’t turn into a bloody, fiery, spectacularly violent mess.

Don’t worry, I didn’t just ruin “Cat Person” for you. In a way, it would be appropriate for her to do so, since the film, directed by Susanna Fogel (“The Spy Who Dumped Me”) from a script by Michelle Ashford, pretty much botches the story. I’m not a purist when it comes to adaptations; My general rule of thumb is that the more irreverent liberties a film takes with its source material, the better. But there’s nothing better about this “Cat Person,” which roughly, flattens, and torturously over-elaborates a story whose elegant conciseness was precisely what made it such rich and elastic interpretive fodder.

Was Roupenian’s story an intensely relatable account of an ill-advised romance, or a slippery consideration of the shifting power difference between an older man and a younger woman? A warning about the dangers of modern dating, the evil of technology, or the ambiguity of consent? An accurate encapsulation of a woman’s point of view, or a petty exercise in shaming?

The filmmakers have at least tried to anticipate the latest accusation: Robert, burly on the page, is played here by the very tall and lanky Nicholas Braun (“Succession”), who otherwise projects the character’s oddly requisite mix of gruffness and sensitivity, sweetness and clumsiness

Those qualities are what strangely endear him to Margot (Emilia Jones), a 20-year-old college student who works as a ticket booth at a movie theater Robert frequently visits. And so begins (and soon ends) a relationship that, fast-forwarding from long, boisterous text message chains to an awkward date and a night of epically bad sex, at least for Margot, serves as a timely reminder of the sometimes yawning chasm. between who we are they think we might be dating and who they really are.

Geraldine Viswanathan and Emilia Jones look at a screen in the film

Geraldine Viswanathan and Emilia Jones in the movie “Cat Person”.

(Sundance Institute)

Everything on screen, more or less, plus references to Harrison Ford, a terrifying dog, several obtuse fantasy/hallucination sequences, and some delightfully blunt commentary on insect mating habits provided by a professor (Isabella Rossellini). who I immediately wanted to follow in a movie of my own (“Ant Person”, naturally). Geraldine Viswanathan (“Blockers”) is also very good as the stubborn best friend who she points out early and often that this relationship is clearly not a very good one, and that she is no less annoyed for being absolutely right.

Overall, you can’t blame the cast of “Cat Person,” let alone Jones, who is completely believable and empathetic here as a young woman who can be both cutting and vulnerable, cynical and naive. (The most fun way to approach “Cat Person” is to see it as a parallel universe sequel to Jones’ college arc in “CODA.”)

But it’s easy to criticize some of Fogel and Ashford’s more forceful storytelling choices, including the ways they chose to visualize their heroine’s active fantasy life. Over and over again, and in ways that are neither as creepy nor funny as she intended, Margot imagines the worst case scenario (i.e., Robert violently lashing out at her in a locked dark room) long before the worst case scenario. is produced.

The movie is much better when it simply allows its fears to play out, without any cutesy comic notation: the scene where Robert kisses Margot for seemingly minutes, his lips sucking somewhere near her mouth and nose, is one of the few where you can see what this “cat person” could have been in more cinematically confident hands.

Much cruder is the inevitable bad sex scene, a kind of out-of-body experience in which Margot and her own doppelganger narrate what they are doing to her in real time, moment after horrifying and shocking moment. In that sequence and others, “Cat Person” strives to open up material that just doesn’t want to open up, that thrives on a level of subjectivity and sustained ambiguity of intent and detail that movies have always been about. hard-pressed to reply.

None of which suggests that Roupenian’s story is unfilmable, just that it hasn’t been filmed well. As cool properties go, the story has clearly been tapped for its title recognition and viral cache, but also with seemingly minimal consideration as to why it screamed to be made into a movie, let alone the genre flick. violent in which it deviates abruptly. his final act.

Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie dance in a bar in the film

Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie in the movie “Eileen.”

(Sundance Institute)

Is this twist meant to boost the commercial prospects of “Cat Person” in an industry where horror is one of the few genres that can still reliably turn a profit? Or to literalize the notion that, duh, relationships can be scary?

If so, a far more effective demonstration of that principle could be found in William Oldroyd’s unpleasantly unpredictable “Eileen,” which opened immediately before “Cat Person,” at the same venue, for reasons I can only suspect did. laugh at the festival programmers. . Because “Eileen”, although set in snowy Massachusetts in 1964 and focused on the bond that forms between two women, is also very much about the seduction of appearances and the excitement and disappointment of new relationships. And none other than “Cat Person” is a portrait of a young woman negotiating complex, often contradictory feelings, often envisioning the most violent outcome of any situation.

Feelings of any kind, beyond everyday depression and anger, seem terribly rare in the community where the sad-eyed, sexually frustrated Eileen (a superb Thomasin McKenzie) lives with her hard-drinking lout (Shea Whigham) and works at a children’s prison It is there that he strikes up a relationship with the new prison psychologist, Rebecca (Anne Hathaway, stunning), whose impossible sophistication and glamor stand out in this bleak setting, and who, upon arrival, immediately fixes Eileen with a knowing smile. As Rebecca babysits Eileen, talks about work, and takes her out for a drink and a dance, you might wonder if you’re watching Oldroyd’s version of “Carol,” not just for the hints of lesbian desire, but also for the unmistakable Patricia Highsmithian vibes at work. And then the story makes its sudden, heartbreaking turn into… well, to say more about that would be unfair.

But speaking of unfair: Does “Eileen” benefit from the fact that I haven’t read Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2015 novel on which it’s based, unlike “Cat Person,” which was adapted from a short, painstakingly vetted story that had I read in advance? How much of this has to do with the cinema, good or bad, and how much does it have to do with your own expectations?

It’s a fair question, though I suspect that even if I’d known every bit of “Eileen’s” plot in advance, Oldroyd’s directing control would still have been withheld from me (as evident here as in “Lady Macbeth”), by cold New England from the movie. atmosphere and impeccable ’60s production design, and especially for Hathaway’s silky poise and McKenzie’s boisterous antics. I certainly would have been captivated by Marin Ireland’s surprisingly raw performance as a woman who reminds you, in a way other movies might learn, that there is in fact always more to the story, and more often than not it is terrifying.

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