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Das merkwürdige Kätzchen (The Strange Little Cat)

Posted by martinteller on April 22, 2015

A tidy whirlwind of everyday activity as a family gathers and prepares for a large dinner.  First-time writer/director Ramon Zürcher employs a minimalist narrative that’s remarkably casual.  The action and conversation couldn’t be more mundane, and yet tiny bits of chaos flutter around the edges.  A light bulb is broken.  A sausage defiantly squirts its juices when cut.  Someone has vomited in front of the house.  No less than three shirts are damaged.  It’s all perfectly ordinary stuff but the absence of broad, dramatic obvious conflict gives the confluence of these minor occurrences just a hint of unease.  And with little prompting from Zürcher.  He rarely points to anything and says: “Isn’t this weird?  What do you make of that, huh?”  A couple of times the camera seems to pause on a character, an ellipsis that lasts just long enough to arouse suspicion.

And it’s also a wonderful little family portrait.  The parents and siblings have utterly authentic chemistry, developing in-jokes and making little jabs of playful passive-aggression.  Rarely are films where “nothing happens” so enjoyable.  And there are these captivating monologues.  Again, the content itself is far from exciting.  The mother relates an incident in a movie theater where a stranger sitting next to her accidentally put his foot on hers.  The father talks about traffic.  A daughter describes how orange peels always fall with the white side up.  A son talks about a drunk woman at a party who made people uncomfortable.  And yet these prosaic speeches, delivered in an emotionless (but not robotic or monotone) fashion, connect with the viewer.  They have a universality, you get a glimpse of the world through someone else’s eyes and recognize it.  And they seem to point to an anxious alienation.  Except the orange peel.  What’s up with the orange peel?

Zürcher isn’t telling.  It’s a puzzler of a film, but done with so little pretense or willful obfuscation that I never felt like I was being kept at arm’s length.  I felt invited in.  Come in, look around, explore.  Breathe in the air.  Is it red or green?  Be a spectator for the purring cat.  Oh yes, the titular cat.  There’s a dog too.  Neither seems to be especially significant, although the cat does appear to have his own soundtrack.  Zürcher was reportedly inspired by “The Metamorphosis” (how curiously coincidental that the last movie I watched was Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life).  Is the cat Gregor Samsa, the creature in the bedroom no one wants to acknowledge?  But they talk about it, pick it up.  Nope, it’s just a cat.  Or is it?  Is the title just a flirtatious tease?

The film draws comparison to both Tati and Akerman.  There’s some of that in there.  It was also conceived during a Bela Tarr workshop.  There’s some of that in there, too.  But these comparisons are too easy.  It’s domestic minutiae, so it’s Akerman.  It’s slow, so it’s Tarr.  It has light comedy featuring people confounded by objects, so it’s Tati.  Influences, yes, but it’s neither a copy of their styles nor some kind of hybrid soup of them.  It’s something familiar and yet different.  It’s warm and it’s cold.  It’s mildly comforting and vaguely sinister.  It’s a slippery little mother of a movie, one that gets better the longer it sits with me.  I want to see this again.  Rating: Great (90)


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