Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Cat People

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2007)

I’ve mentioned once or twice that Paul Schrader’s Cat People, made in 1982, is one of my prime “guilty pleasure” films. Not that I feel that guilty about it – I just use the term to acknowledge that my affection for the movie goes way beyond any objective claims I can try to make for it. For sure, it’s not very highly regarded overall, pulling in a mediocre 5.8 average rating on the Internet Movie Database, and taking up the least space of any of the director’s films in the Schrader On Schrader interview book. But I watched it again lately, after many years, and although I found it brasher than I’d remembered, it was still scintillatingly intense and perverse. In its own way, it’s the kind of film they just don’t make any more.

Brother And Sister

It is of course a remake of Jacques Tourneur’s famous 1942 picture, although the first point is that Schrader (in one of the excellent materials included on the DVD) says he wishes he’d called his film something else, because the original never meant much to him and he could have lived without the comparisons. I don’t recall Tourneur’s film well enough to say much about it, but it’s primarily remembered for masterly use of shadows and light, as well as for that indelible central premise: a virginal young woman whose desires, if fulfilled, will cause her to turn into a cat.

For the famously conflicted, neurotic Schrader, who was raised in a repressive religious community and spent much of his life overcompensating, this premise must have been a perverse gift, and his film has a luscious, kid-in-the-candy-store (very bad kid, severely spiked candy) quality about it. He cast Nastassia Kinski, at the height of her visibility and sensuality, as the girl, and Malcolm McDowell as her brother (a character not in the original movie) – an unlikely pairing perhaps, but they’re both wide-eyed, hungry, and almost more than the film can bear. She comes to him in New Orleans after many years apart; he eyes her up like no man should his sister, almost immediately goes missing, and a majestic black leopard strangely turns up in a crummy hotel room. The police bring in the local zoo, and the leopard ends up confined under the eye of curator John Heard, who rapidly falls in love with Kinski after she starts hanging out at the cat’s cage. The leopard vanishes; McDowell returns; he and Kinski, he tells her, must sleep together as brother and sister, just as their parents did – only this way can they avoid their terrible curse.

As Kinski slowly wakes up to her true nature, the film fills up with nudity and eroticism. Schrader says he hit on a strategy of delivering sex when the audience would expect violence, and vice versa. So the film’s kinky climax involves no confrontation or anger or triumph – merely Kinski’s acknowledgment of her fate, and Heard’s capitulation to what he must do to deliver her to relative tranquility, even though he therefore loses the woman he loves.

Obsessed With Kinski

On its own terms, the film is at its weakest when paying homage to the original: in a scene where Kinski is approached in a restaurant by a mysterious woman who greets her as a sister, and a longer one where a woman she regards as her rival for Heard’s affections (played by Annette O’Toole) thinks she’s being stalked by a big cat as she takes a solitary swim. Neither makes narrative sense (the first because there’s been no previous hint that the condition is at all widespread; the second because Kinski hasn’t fully awoken to her own nature at that point). But perhaps it’s best to take these scenes as signs of whirling malaise in the atmosphere, as a generalized implication of possibility and subtext.

That approach helps because otherwise, for all its inherent craziness, Cat People actually feels excessively controlled and linear to me. It’s an extremely conscious work of design: at one point Schrader wanted the film to go out as “Paul Schrader and Ferdinando Scarfiotti’s Cat People” (Scarfiotti being the production designer), and in Schrader On Schrader he emphasizes the film’s colour coordination. It’s a stunning creation of blood and flesh and eyes and windows and bars and New Orleans locations, all set to a Giorgio Moroder score that wraps around them like decadent clinging leather.

But it’s nevertheless questionable whether this was the best overall approach to the material, and maybe Schrader reveals why when he talks of the Heard character as his main point of identification with the material: “as we developed the character he evolved more and more along the lines of myself.” On screen this results in a rather stolid, morose focal point, whose obsession with Kinski must be gleaned from actions and dialogue rather then viscerally felt. The interesting thing is that Schrader actually developed an obsession with Kinski during the filming, but who knows how exactly this worked itself out into details of shot selection, lighting and so forth? It feels to me that the movie should be wilder, less conventionally paced, more discursive – in other words that the sense of mad, transgressive desire should more fully occupy its DNA.

Sex For Violence

As I mentioned, the film’s primary electricity is in the crazy relationship between Kinski and McDowell, and in Kinski’s performance when she lets loose: at various points she has the look of someone who knows more about sex than any woman alive (although her character is still a virgin at that point). When I saw the film I was maybe sixteen, and I remember being astonished at the implications of her character. Not that I assigned much likelihood to the cat people scenario I suppose, but the vision of someone simultaneously so unschooled and yet so knowing and determined seemed immensely empowering to me. I think it may have been one of the first films where I was genuinely able to view an actress’s nudity as a matter of self-expression and exploration rather than as merely decorative. This was naïve of course, for the film is patently exploitative and trashy. But if you haven’t seen that many movies, Schrader’s sex-for-violence strategy is highly bracing, and confirms his description of a film more closely rooted in intimate preoccupations, however outlandish the context.

Regular readers may remember that I already wrote a little bit about Schrader a year or so ago (in a flourish that entertained me if no one else, I worked him into an article on Jerry Lewis’ The Day The Clown Cried), so I’m obviously fascinated by his ups and downs. Cat People didn’t repeat the success of his previous film American Gigolo, and from then on his career became less visible (including periods when it hardly seemed to exist at all). His next film, tantalizingly (although I know it could turn out horribly) will apparently be a take on an older version of the American Gigolo (sounds good so far), starring Woody Harrelson (not so much). But Cat People is really the one he should take a second shot at. He came so close to a genre masterpiece, and might yet nail it.

(2010 afterword - indeed, The Walker didn't turn out to be much. And I regret the shot at Woody Harrelson)

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