It won’t be surprise anyone that the centerpiece of cat person — an adaptation of the viral New Yorker short story of Kristen Roupenian, the literary fuse-bed who launched a million answer articles and the surface of the sun – hot ticket at Sundance – is a sex scene. It’s as inevitable as it will be a “bad sex” scene, whether it’s a badly done sex scene or not. The only question is what level of horror you’ll witness when the two people at the center of this swirling vortex connect, and whether it will make its counterpart on the page relatively tame. (The other, more pressing question is: how the hell do you fit cat person in a movie at all? But let’s not rush.)
At this point, we have followed the evolution of the relationship between Margot (CODA‘s Emilia Jones), a 20-year-old sophomore, and Robert (Successionof Nicholas Braun), a 33-year-old man. We saw them meet at his work, at a concession stand at the local art house theater. You know, the kind that has a lot of revival programs and vintage monster movie trailers featuring “a young woman, in peril!!!” The awkward flirting led to daily text exchanges and inside jokes, as well as a late-night mission to deliver food to Margot in the form of Fruity Pebbles, the kind of gesture that lies somewhere between suspicious and soft. They finally go on a real date, which involves seeing The Empire Strikes Back – one of his all-time favourites; No matter what she finds star wars boring movies – in the same theater where she works. A few beers and an extremely awful first kiss later, they’re back at Robert’s.
He pours whiskey for Margot, but doesn’t give her a chance to drink it. When they get to his room, he puts on “Enjoy the Silence” by Depeche Mode. (“Don’t you understand?/Oh, my baby girl.”) Robert alternates between aggressively undressing Margot and undressing her clothes. In the story, she imagines herself looking back on that worst time on a date with a future boyfriend and them laughing; this time, thanks to one of the brightest additions screenwriter Michelle Ashford and director Susanna Fogel bring to the table, Margot has an ongoing conversation with herself as it unfolds. Abandon the mission, Margot said coldly, leaning against the wall. I can’t, it’s too late, replies Margot, wedged between the man who squeaks at her. I could hurt his feelings. Well, let’s get it over with, they both reluctantly agree.
What follows is a scene of such intense awkwardness and nuclear-level outrage that you might want to avoid attempting coitus again. Playing in real time, it’s a symphony of sexual missteps, masculine recklessness, statements and conflicting opinions about consent (apparently, “let’s take it easy” translates to manually stimulating you with someone’s hand). another without asking permission) and barking recreations of pornographic scenarios. It ends with Margot having an out of body experience, watching herself as Robert, in full rig mode, treats her like a prop. When he’s finished, he whispers, “Good girl.” It is the opposite of physical intimacy. More like a pure bad sex nightmare.
This screen version of cat personThe second most toxic moment on the page seems designed to make you sick, as well as spark at least a small ember of thought in viewers: any of this sounds familiar? Has an iteration of this ever happened to you? The idea being that many female viewers and, probably, a handful of self-aware male viewers, will recoil in recognition. And as in Roupenian’s story, this encounter will see Robert sending dainty dolphin emojis, Margot’s best friend Tamara (Geraldine Viswanathan) writing a candid kiss on her friend’s phone, and this series of gradually sinking texts. in misogyny, rage and dismissal in one word that says a lot about Freud: “Bitch.”
Fogel stages this in the present-strictly way to pop texts on screen as they appear, with each incoming ding doubling as a warning horn. That doesn’t make the growing sense of dread any less potent. The camera moves slowly towards the two young women as Robert’s spiraling missives pile up, one after the other. Tamar’s reactions become more OMG. Margot’s face remains a mask of emotional numbness.
This is where the New Yorker version ends, and like many great short stories – “A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud”, “The Battler”, “The Lottery” – it’s the compactness and connection aspects that give Roupenian cat person such depth charge power. This last series of moves appears a little after the halfway point of cat person the film, however, and tackles the biggest problem plaguing this entire enterprise: how to flesh this out into a three-act narrative that works like a two-hour feature. As Fogel and Ashford told the Hollywood journalist days before their glitzy premiere at Sundance on Saturday night, they decided to make one get out-style, social commentary horror film. It’s the kind of Eureka! choice that seems like a good one until you see the end result, in which case you might find yourself saying, Um, really?
It’s not that cat person can’t be a horror story – it opens with Margaret Atwood’s quote about men fearing humiliation and women fearing murder by men, and the film taps into the inherent fear that someone one would feel in a potentially dangerous situation. Like, say, dealing with an unstable guy. (Braun’s height and Cousin-Greg’s discomfort in his own skin are weaponized here.) The addition of creepy music playing over innocuous scenes from a date already seems shady. Ditto something as simple as Jones walking down a dark street late at night; a number of women will tell you that this is a source of IRL anxiety worthy of a John Carpenter score.
But once the film commits to this notion, cat person begins to clash with the conventions and limitations of its genre in the worst possible way. There’s already been plenty of padding to make it last: Isabella Rosselini giving a talk on ant queens, Hope Davis turning Margot’s mother into a needy narcissist, some extra business on campus politics, and a Sondheim production. In the woods (in which Prince Charming is problematic), imagined therapy sessions, with Viswanathan’s character arguing with someone on his Reddit known as “The Vagenda”. Not to mention the incidents that are mentioned in passing in the story being dramatized in full sequences.
Also trying to mold this material into a pre-made horror model, however, cat personThe cup is really overflowing. That’s why we get a climactic scene involving a fight, a fire, and Margot going from “Concession-Stand Girl” (Robert’s demeaning nickname for her) to the last girl who couldn’t feel more forced. Worse still, it seems to rely on the idea that much of the final act hubbub and feelings of compromised security are actually her foul – a move that seems WTF at best. These elements should add context to the culture that produced these problems. Instead, it boils it all down to weak satirical tea and spooky movie beats. Toxic masculinity may be the beast in modern men, but the attempt to shape it into cinematic terms falls painfully flat.
What the film accuses, of course, are the films themselves. Robert’s favorite actor is Harrison Ford, and he articulates dialogue from Empire scene in which Han Solo jokes with Leia before abruptly kissing her. When he sends Margot a post-coital montage of Ford’s greatest hits the next day, Tamara explains how scenes from IndianaJones movies and blade runner sell the idea that women are not so much courted as conquered by their sheer will. The sounds of a 1950s trailer playing in Margot’s Theater, about evil unleashed on damsels in distress, are no coincidence. We assume that the extract from american graffiti we see that normalizes a 12 year old hanging with an older guy. Don’t get us started on the song-and-dance routine Margot performs with her mother, for her stepfather: Marilyn Monroe’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” carnally coos [shudder] 1960s Make love. You can’t say that cat person is shy about taking the medium to task in selling a romantic ideal that is more than a little curdled. If only it were this rigorous and incisive on the source material itself.
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