Based on the controversial New Yorker short story, Cat Person’s cinematic adaptation, directed by Susanna Fogel, is an unfortunate, problematic depiction of how it demonstrates the anxieties of being a woman.
Released two weeks before Molly Manning Walker’s How to Have Sex, sandwiching Cat Person with Emerald Fennell‘s Promising Young Woman, its political activism should have had strength in its portrayal of the daily struggles and fears of being a woman, especially one at an undergraduate college, though, by villainising our lead, we are unable to empathise fully.
Beat-for-beat replicant of the short story: Margot (Emilia Jones) meets Robert (Nicholas Braun) whilst working at the cinema. Whilst he’s odd and socially awkward in person, his charm over text is something different. They exchange multiple texts over a prolonged period until they meet for a date. The date ends in Margot having sex with Robert, more out of kindness than wanting, having proved himself an awful kisser and a bit odd. A few days later, Margot calls things off after questioning his honesty, though his treatment towards Margot shifts into insult-hurling.
Braun’s performance as a tall, socially anxious stranger to Jones’ Margot is excellently handled, with the threat of his behaviour bubbling under the surface, never fully revealing itself to audiences as we question whether our fears are genuine or a product of Margot’s. Entirely removed from hearing his inner monologue or justification for his actions, his behaviour is always one-sided. While Robert may rationally explain them, they ultimately affect Margot’s psyche.
In the lingering threat, it’s here that Cat Person shows its claws. Walking home alone at night requires an ear tuned to following footsteps. Even attempts at being romantic by Robert are inherently creepy when stripped away from the rising crescendo of orchestral music and heightened emotions of cinema.
However, as a film that aims to provoke conversation about the societal differences in women’s safety, villainising her in its final act strips it of withstanding any validity. Her actions transgress the audience in supporting her decisions, as her overstep of legality puts her at fault as much as, or more so than, Robert.
Equally, by presenting every man as problematic unless removed from sexual desire or likely to be interested in Margot, subconsciously, I would argue, distances men from engaging in the film’s context. For instance, her best friend and former ex-partner opens up about their asexuality, and her mother’s assistant is strongly queer-coded, both of whom are the film’s only instances of positive male representations who offer guidance to Margot.
Conversely, her disinterested father sexualises her with a request for her to perform ‘My Heart Belongs To Daddy’ alongside her mother on stage for his birthday. In its cinematic adaptation, to suggest that men are only safe when stripped of sexual desire is likely to perpetuate the reductive argument used in conjunction with any conversation surrounding the #MeToo movement rather than engaging with its weakly executed themes.
Similarly, with its clunky dialogue and schizophrenic tone, including cut-aways with Robert speaking to a therapist, wearing the jumper from Rian Johnson‘s Knives Out, Cat Person fails to navigate its self-awareness with the political point it continually tries to reiterate. Though Margot may be interested in film, we never see any indication of that, only through Robert’s dialogue with her, assuming her interest is limited to foreign films screened with subtitles. To muddle its identity with humorous cutaways, it deviates from understanding the unsettling thriller/horror genre it firmly belongs to.
Conceptually, Cat Person has a lot to say about the safety of women and the anxieties of the day-to-day where men are, at best, unknowingly creepy and, at worse, terrifying. Unfortunately, its execution is reductive and poorly delivered despite featuring a powerful disassociation sequence that fits within the consent conversation echoed in How to Have Sex.
When its short story is so entangled with the politics of the #MeToo movement and the zeitgeist of women’s safety, there was a lot of pressure for Cat Person to, at the very least, offer a complimentary piece and possibly even reignite the conversation. Shamefully, it will get people talking, but for the wrong reasons.
Cat Person is available to watch in cinemas from 27 October.
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