Director Susanna Fogel adapts a viral New Yorker story, but fails not only her protagonist but also her audience. Here’s our Cat Person review.
There’s a scene in Lucio Fulci’s City Of The Living Dead (or The Gates Of Hell, depending where you live) where a character slowly, painfully vomits out their own insides. It’s a scene you feel viscerally as you watch intestines and organs regurgitated all over the screen.
I can’t say I know for sure what it feels like to puke out your organs, but I’m pretty sure it’s close to how I felt watching Susanna Fogel’s new film, Cat Person. This might sound like a criticism, but it’s actually the highest compliment I can give the film, which otherwise completely misses its mark.
Cat Person is adapted from a viral New Yorker story in which a young woman, Margot, details her experience of dating a slightly older guy, Robert. The story describes the highs and lows of the initial dating phase before an abrupt, rather shocking ending. Fogel takes things further in her film, creating an infuriating final act that feels completely out of place.
CODA’s Emilia Jones plays Margot, who works in an artsy movie theatre while in college. She notices an awkwardly handsome guy, Robert (played by Succession’s Nicholas Braun), who comes in and buys popcorn and sweets and the two engage in mild flirtation, which ultimately blooms into dating. But it’s not easy being a modern woman in the current dating pool. What if Robert’s a serial killer? Or worse, what if he’s bad in bed and Margot has to tell him she’s not interested anymore? The threat of male violence against women looms over every frame of Cat Person, which somehow still can’t quite say anything new or insightful about it.
The original, fictional, story, by Kristen Roupenian, was a sobering look at the casualness with which men are capable of abusing women. The film opens with a famous Margaret Atwood quote: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” It’s a quote that perfectly encapsulates, but also slightly cheapens Cat Person. There’s no nuance in Fogel’s filmmaking, and she prefers heightened reality over a nuanced truth.
There’s a lot to love in Cat Person, though. As described, the film nails that solid lump of discomfort that sits at the pit of your stomach when you know something’s wrong, but you can’t quite pinpoint what. I physically cringed several times, while watching Cat Person, wanting to dart out of the darkness of the screening room and into the fresh air.
It’s a shame Fogel completely fails her protagonist. From the beginning, Margot is presented as flimsy and quick to dream up different scenarios – whether it’s the romantic kind or terrifying ones, such as when she imagines Robert turning into a psychopath after the two get trapped in a supply closet. While it’s supposed to clearly showcase the discomfort and uncertainty all women feel, all it manages to do is establish Margot as an unreliable protagonist. Not what you want in a film like Cat Person, which desperately wants to be an insightful film about misogyny and relationship politics.
For what it’s worth, both Jones and Braun are compelling in their roles. When Margot and Robert finally end up in the bedroom, the scene is as piercingly accurate as it is awkward. Let’s be real: we’ve all had bad sex and gone on terrible dates with questionable people, but Fogel draws attention to the muddled, complex politics of consent by having Margot imagine a conversation between herself and another version of herself while she ponders whether she wants to continue having sex with Robert or whether she should withdraw her consent. It’s the film’s most brilliant scene, and it’s a shame there aren’t more of these insightful, thorny moments; they’re far more interesting than the scenes that go either full on-horror or all-out comedy. The jarring tonal shifts quickly become exhausting, and the film loses steam.
We won’t spoil the wild, unnecessary final act, not present in the original story, but like Fair Play, it goes for a big swing. Unlike Fair Play, it’s completely misjudged, and you’re left with a film that had a slight chance of redeeming itself, but fumbles the bag at the last minute.
Cat Person is a masterclass in awkwardness and Fogel revels in making her audience squirm, but these elements alone don’t make a great film. The message gets lost halfway through and the entire thing falls down like a house of cards. It’s a film that talks down to its audience and underestimates our ability to understand nuance, by making Robert needlessly one-dimensional. What a shame.
Cat Person is in cinemas 27 October.
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