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Sundance: How ‘Cat Person’ movie ruins New Yorker brief story


Late into “Cat Person,” the much-buzzed-about new film tailored from Kristen Roupenian’s 2017 brief story of the identical title, an unsightly one-word textual content message seems in startling, screen-filling closeup. You’ll know what the phrase is when you’ve learn the story, and there’s an honest probability you’ve gotten, because it is without doubt one of the extra extensively circulated and ferociously debated fiction items revealed by the New Yorker in latest reminiscence.

Still, to evaluate by the gasps that greeted that phrase on the film’s Sundance Film Festival premiere Saturday evening, there have been clearly many within the viewers who hadn’t. Presumably they have been additionally unaware that the phrase can also be the final phrase of Roupenian’s story, which, in contrast to the film, doesn’t proceed to devolve right into a bloody, fiery and spectacularly violent mess.

Don’t fear, I haven’t simply ruined “Cat Person” for you. In some methods it might be becoming if I did, because the film, directed by Susanna Fogel (“The Spy Who Dumped Me”) from a script by Michelle Ashford, roughly ruins the story. I’m not a purist relating to variations; my basic rule of thumb is that the extra irreverent liberties a film takes with its supply materials, the higher. But there may be nothing higher about this “Cat Person,” which coarsens, flattens and torturously over-elaborates a narrative whose elegant concision was exactly what made it such wealthy and elastic interpretive fodder.

Was Roupenian’s yarn an intensely relatable account of an ill-advised romance, or a slippery consideration of the shifting energy differential between an older man and a youthful lady? A cautionary story concerning the perils of contemporary courting, the devilishness of expertise or the anomaly of consent? A spot-on encapsulation of a girl’s standpoint or a mean-spirited train in fat-shaming?

The filmmakers have no less than tried to preempt the latter cost: Robert, portly on the web page, is performed right here by the very tall and lanky Nicholas Braun (“Succession”), who in any other case tasks the character’s requisite bizarre mixture of curtness and sensitivity, sweetness and schlubbiness.

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Those qualities are what unusually endear him to Margot (Emilia Jones), a 20-year-old faculty pupil who works on the concession stand of a movie show that Robert visits usually. And so begins (and shortly ends) a relationship that — advancing swiftly from lengthy, full of life textual content chains to a clumsy date and an evening of epically unhealthy intercourse, no less than for Margot — serves as a well timed reminder of the generally yawning chasm between who we expect we could be courting and who they are surely.

Geraldine Viswanathan and Emilia Jones within the film “Cat Person.”

(Sundance Institute)

All that’s on the display screen, roughly, plus Harrison Ford references, a scary canine, a number of obtuse fantasy/hallucination sequences and a few deliciously blunt commentary on insect mating habits offered by a professor (Isabella Rossellini) whom I instantly wished to comply with right into a film of her personal (“Ant Person,” naturally). Geraldine Viswanathan (“Blockers”) can also be excellent because the opinionated bestie who notes early and sometimes that this relationship is clearly not excellent, and who is not any much less annoying for being completely right.

All in all, you possibly can’t fault the actors in “Cat Person,” least of all Jones, who’s totally plausible and empathetic right here as a younger lady who will be each slicing and susceptible, cynical and naive. (The most amusing option to strategy “Cat Person” is to see it as a parallel-universe sequel to Jones’ off-to-college arc in “CODA.”)

But you possibly can simply fault a few of Fogel and Ashford’s extra bludgeoning storytelling selections, together with the methods they’ve chosen to visualise their heroine’s lively fantasy life. Again and once more, and in methods which are neither as creepy nor as humorous as meant, Margot imagines the worst-case situation (i.e., Robert lunging violently at her in a locked darkroom) lengthy earlier than the precise worst-case situation kicks in.

The film is much better when it merely permits her fears to play out, with none cutesy comedian annotation: The scene wherein Robert kisses Margot for seemingly minutes on finish, his lips sucking away someplace within the neighborhood of her mouth and nostril, is without doubt one of the few the place you possibly can see what this “Cat Person” might need been in additional cinematically assured fingers.

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Far clunkier is the inevitable bad-sex scene, a form of out-of-body expertise wherein Margot and her personal eye-rolling double narrate what’s being carried out to her in actual time, second by terrible, cringe-inducing second. In that sequence and others, “Cat Person” labors to open up materials that merely doesn’t wish to be opened up — that thrives on a degree of subjectivity, and on a sustained ambiguity of intent and element, that the films have all the time been hard-pressed to duplicate.

None of which is to recommend that Roupenian’s story is unfilmable, solely that it hasn’t been effectively filmed. As sizzling properties go, the story has clearly been seized upon for its title recognition and viral cachet, but additionally with seemingly minimal consideration of why it cried out to be made right into a film — not to mention the violent style film into which it abruptly swerves in its closing act.

Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie dance in a bar in the movie "Eileen."

Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie within the film “Eileen.”

(Sundance Institute)

Is this swerve meant to spice up “Cat Person’s” business prospects in an trade the place horror is without doubt one of the few genres that may nonetheless reliably flip a revenue? Or to literalize the notion that, duh, relationships will be scary?

If so, a way more efficient demonstration of that precept may very well be present in William Oldroyd’s nastily unpredictable “Eileen,” which premiered instantly earlier than “Cat Person,” on the similar venue, for causes that I can solely suspect gave the competition programmers a chuckle. For “Eileen” — though set in snowy 1964 Massachusetts and centered on the bond that kinds between two ladies — can also be very a lot concerning the seductiveness of appearances and the fun and disappointment of recent relationships. And a minimum of “Cat Person,” it’s a portrait of a younger lady negotiating advanced, usually contradictory emotions and sometimes envisioning probably the most violent final result to any scenario.

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Feelings of any sort, past on a regular basis despair and anger, appear awfully scarce in the neighborhood the place the sad-eyed, sexually pissed off Eileen (an excellent Thomasin McKenzie) lives along with her hard-drinking lout of a father (Shea Whigham) and works in a boys’ jail. It’s there that she strikes up a rapport with the jail’s new psychologist, Rebecca (Anne Hathaway, beautiful), whose unattainable sophistication and glamour stand out in these dreary environment, and who upon arrival instantly fixes Eileen with a conspiratorial smile. As Rebecca takes Eileen beneath wing, speaking store and taking her out for drinks and dancing, you may end up questioning when you’re watching Oldroyd’s model of “Carol” — not simply due to the intimations of lesbian want, but additionally due to the unmistakable Patricia Highsmithian vibes at work. And then the story makes its sudden, harrowing shift into — effectively, to say extra about that may be unfair.

But talking of unfair: Does “Eileen” profit from the truth that I haven’t learn the 2015 Ottessa Moshfegh novel on which it’s primarily based, in contrast to “Cat Person,” which was tailored from a brief and endlessly scrutinized story that I had learn prematurely? How a lot of this has to do with filmmaking, good or unhealthy, and the way a lot of it has to do with one’s personal expectations?

It’s a good query, although I think that even had I recognized each “Eileen” plot beat prematurely, I might nonetheless have been held by Oldroyd’s directorial management (as evident right here as in “Lady Macbeth”), by the film’s chilly New England ambiance and faultless ’60s manufacturing design, and particularly by Hathaway’s silky poise and McKenzie’s roiling mischief. Certainly I might have been held by Marin Ireland’s startlingly uncooked efficiency as a girl who reminds you — in ways in which different films may stand to be taught — that there’s in truth all the time extra to the story, and that extra is usually terrifying.


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