CAT PERSON Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Susanna Fogel
Stars: Emilia Jones, Nicholas Braun, Geraldine Viswanathan, Hope Davis, Isabella Rossellini, Fred Melamed, Christopher Shyer, Liza Koshy, Josh Andres Rivera, Isaac Cole Powell, Michael Gandolfini.
Fatal attraction indeed. “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” This quirky psychological thriller begins with an epigraph from Booker Prize winning author Margaret Atwood. This quote highlights the tensions between the sexes and drives the central narrative of the offbeat Cat Person, which explores the horrors of dating and how men and women view relationships. This is a cautionary tale that follows a cringeworthy sexual relationship between two lonely and awkward people that quickly spirals out of control but views it from a largely female perspective.
Margot (Emilia Jones, from Doctor Who, etc) is a 20-year-old sophomore university student studying anthropology under renowned professor Enid Zabala (Isabella Rossellini). She works at the concession stand of a local independent repertory cinema in City Jersey to help pay for her studies. One night she notices a tall, dark but somewhat awkward stranger walk into the cinema. He seems uncomfortable with small talk. He is Robert (played by Nicholas Braun, from tv series Succession, etc), and somehow Margot feels attracted towards this older man and finds his awkwardness somewhat endearing. The pair flirt. After exchanging a number of text messages she agrees to go out with him on a date. She is something of a cineaste and Robert obsesses over Harrison Ford movies. However, her overbearing and overtly feminist roommate Taylor (Geraldine Viswanathan, from tv series Miracle Workers, etc) is suspicious of Robert and warns Margot against becoming involved with him.
The relationship becomes more serious, but Margot grows increasingly uncomfortable around Robert. He claims to be a lover of cats but there is no sign of a cat around his house, and she suspects that he is actually stalking her for some reason. Margot seems unable to find a tactful way to break off the relationship, and when she ghosts him, the situation becomes more fraught with a frisson of tension as he turns nasty.
Cat Person has been adapted from a short story written by Kristen Roupenian that was published in the New Yorker in 2017. The story explored toxic relationship dynamics in this modern world and subsequently went viral. Screenwriters Susanna Fogel (who also directs) and Michelle Ashford (Operation Mincemeat, etc) have expanded the basic narrative into something darker and tinged with touches of black humour. Fogel effectively uses text messages and emojis on screen to convey the banter between the two, as well as illustrate Margot’s nightmares and increasingly darker thoughts. This device also manages to depict Taylor’s doubts and Robert’s increasingly desperate pleas.
However, for much of the first half of the film the pacing is deceptively languid, but Fogel (who previously directed the comedy The Spy Who Dumped Me, etc) effectively ramps up the suspense and air of uneasiness as Cat Person moves towards its climax. There is also an awkward and excrutiatingly embarrassing sex scene that will have audiences cringing in their seats.
Cinematographer Manuel Billeter effectively uses darker tones to heighten the tension and give the material an at times oppressive feel.
Jones brings intelligence and a feisty quality to her role here, effectively capturing Margot’s growing uneasiness and paranoia. Viswanathan effectively steals several scenes with her bold, brassy performance. Unrecognisable from his Succession character here Bruan is effective and brings both an awkwardness and a slightly creepy quality to his performance as the enigmatic Robert. Hope Davis contributes a brief appearance as Margot’s mother who offers some sage motherly advice, while Rossellini is wasted in a thankless role. And Margot’s two musical theatre-loving friends provide some much-needed comic relief.
Cat Person was a sensation when it screened at the Sundance Film Festival but is also likely to prove divisive.