Sundance: How the film ‘Cat Person’ destroys the New Yorker short story

Sundance: How the film ‘Cat Person’ destroys the New Yorker short story

Late into “Cat Person,” the much-buzzed-about new film adapted from Kristen Roupenian’s 2017 short story of the same title, an ugly, one-word text message appears in terrifying, terrifying close-up. 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 discussed pieces of fiction published by the New Yorker recently recalled.

However, to judge by the gasps that greeted that word at the film’s Sundance Film Festival premiere on Saturday night, there were clearly many in the audience who were not. They probably also didn’t know that the word is also the last word of Roupenian’s story, which, unlike the film, does not go on to become a bloody, fiery and spectacularly violent mess.

Don’t worry, I haven’t just ruined “Cat Person” for you. In some ways it would be appropriate if I did, since the film, directed by Susanna Fogel (“The Spy Who Dumped Me”) from a script by Michelle Ashford, more or less spoils the story. I’m not a purist when it comes to adaptations; My rule of thumb is that the less liberties a film takes with its source material, the better. But there’s nothing better about this “Cat Man,” which narrows, expands and excruciatingly overexplains a story whose elegant consensus was precisely what made it rich and elastic fodder for interpretation.

Was Roupenian’s yarn a highly relatable account of ill-advised romance, or a slippery consideration of the differential power transfer between an older man and a younger woman? A cautionary tale about the dangers of modern dating, the devil of technology or the ambiguity of consent? Spot-on encapsulation of a woman’s point of view or a spiritual medium exercise in fat shaming?

The filmmakers have at least tried to prevent the final charge: Robert, clearly on the page, is played here by the very tall and lanky Nicholas Braun (“Succession”), who does the opposite of the character’s necessary peculiar mixture of politeness and delicacy, sweetness. and schlubbiness.

Margot (Emilia Jones), a 20-year-old college student who works at the concession stand of a movie theater that Robert often visits, is very impressed by these qualities. And so begins (and soon ends) a relationship – quickly progressing from long, lively text chains to a thrilling date and a night of epic bad sex, at least for Margot – which serves as a timely reminder of the tragedy that sometimes takes place between who we are. think we might be dating and who they really are.

Geraldine Viswanathan and Emilia Jones look on screen in the film

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

(Sundance Institute)

Pretty much everything on screen, plus Harrison Ford references, a scary dog, some mild fantasy/hallucination sequences and some delicious commentary on insect mating habits by a professor (Isabella Rossellini) that I wanted to follow immediately. movie of her own (“Ant Person,” naturally). Geraldine Viswanathan (“Blockers”) is also very good as the speculator who soon and often notices that this relationship is clearly not very good, and no less bad for being Okay.

Overall, you can’t fault the actors in “Cat Person,” but especially Jones, who is completely believable and empathetic here as a young woman who can be short and vulnerable, cynical and naive. (The most enjoyable way to approach “Cat Person” is to see it as a parallel universe sequence to Jones’ out-of-college arc in “CODA.”)

But it’s easy to fault some of Fogel and Ashford’s more bludgeoning storytelling choices, including the ways they chose to imagine their heroine’s active fantasy life. Over and over again, and in ways that are neither as disturbing nor as funny as intended, Margot imagines the worst-case scenario (ie Robert violently stripping her in a dark, locked room) long before the situation begins Worst.

The film is much better when it allows her to play fear, without any comical note: The scene where Robert finally kisses Margot for a moment, his lips sucking from somewhere near her mouth and his nose of the few places where you can see what this “Cat Man” could have been in more cinematically confident hands.

Far clunkier is the inevitable bad-sex scene, a kind of out-of-body experience in which Margot and her double eyes tell her what’s being done to her in real time, minute by moment of terrifying horror. In that sequence and others, “Cat Person” works to open up a subject that doesn’t want to be opened up – which thrives on a level of subjectivity, and the lingering ambiguity of mind and detail, that the movies have always had. hard-pressed to replicate.

None of this suggests that Roupenian’s story can’t be filmed, just that it’s not filmed well. As hot features go, it’s clear that the story was captured by its title recognition and viral cachet, but also without much thought given to why it called for it to be made into a movie – let alone a violent one. a genre he is suddenly creeping into. his last 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 momentum 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 spell out the notion that, duh, relationships can be scary?

If so, a far more effective illustration of that principle could be found in William Oldroyd’s badly unpredictable “Eileen,” which premiered just before “Cat Person,” at the same venue, for reasons I cannot fathom. doubt they gave the festival programmers a laugh. . As for “Eileen” – although it is set in the snow of 1964 Massachusetts and focuses on the bond between two women – it is very much about the seductiveness of appearance and the thrill and disappointment of new relationships. And at least “Cat Person,” is a portrait of a young woman who negotiates complex, often conflicting emotions and often imagines the most violent outcome of any situation.

Emotions of any kind, outside of everyday depression and anger, seem to be in short supply in the community where the brooding and sexually frustrated Eileen (an excellent Thomasin McKenzie) lives with her father (Shea Whigham) and she is drinking hard. the boys’ prison. There she strikes up a relationship with the new prison psychologist, Rebecca (Anne Hathaway, stunning), whose sophistication and impossible glamor stand out in that dark environment, and which Eileen immediately calms down with a conspiratorial smile. As Rebecca takes Eileen under her wing, talking and taking her out for drinks and dancing, you might wonder if you’re watching Oldroyd’s version of “Carol” — not just because of the impression by lesbian desire, but also because of the story. Unmistakable Patricia Highsmithian vibes at work. And then the story takes a sudden, sideways turn into – well, it would be unfair to say more about that.

But speaking of unfair: Does “Eileen” benefit from the fact that I haven’t read Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2015 novel it’s based on, unlike “Cat Person,” which was adapted into a nonstop short story I read there. ahead? How much of this has to do with filmmaking, good or bad, and how much has to do with the person?

It’s a fair question, although I doubt that even if I knew every “Eileen” plot beat in advance, I’d still be in possession of Oldroyd’s directorial control (as seen here and in “Lady Macbeth”), at the film’s chilling New England. flawless ’60s atmosphere and production design, and especially at Hathaway’s silky pose and McKenzie’s mischief. I would definitely point to Marin Ireland’s stunningly raw performance as a woman who will remind you — in ways that other films could learn — that there is always more to the story, and that more is often scary. .

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