The Strange Little Cat (2013)

Dir. by Ramon Zürcher

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This conversation was originally published at 2013 AFI Fest.

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Since its premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2013, Ramon Zürcher’s feature-length debut, The Strange Little Cat, has done a tour of more than two dozen of the world’s most prestigious fests, including Cannes, Toronto, Vienna and now AFI FEST. It’s rare to find a young filmmaker with such a distinct, mature voice, and even rarer to stumble upon a film that so generously rewards post-screening discussions and multiple viewings. It’s a small gem, a film that tells a familiar story in a genuinely new way.

The Strange Little Cat is set almost entirely in a Berlin apartment, where an extended family has gathered to prepare and enjoy a meal together. The main character – if it’s fair to call her that – is the mother of the family who is hosting the party. She’s middle-aged, attractive, and by turns delighted by and indifferent to her family, including her husband, their two older children who have returned home for the occasion, and a young daughter. Throughout the course of their day, various members of the family tell deeply felt stories – reveries, really – that fall on deaf ears, and it becomes increasingly obvious that there is an unacknowledged tension between them.

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Blake Williams is a doctoral candidate in Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto and a video artist whose work has screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Pacific Film Archive. Darren Hughes is a communications director at the University of Tennessee and a freelance critic. The following is an edited version of a recent conversation they had about The Strange Little Cat. It’s fair to say that both have been unusually obsessed with this film for the better part of the last year.

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HUGHES: How many times have you seen The Strange Little Cat?

WILLIAMS: Three times all the way through. The last time was at a press screening in late August, before the Toronto International Film Festival began.

HUGHES: How did your impression of it change with each viewing?

WILLIAMS: About two months had passed between my first viewing, which was an online screener, and my second at Cannes, where it was playing in the sidebar called ACID. I remembered a few details: the song, “Pulchritude,” what the mother looked like, and what kind of cat it was. Loosely, I remembered there was a dinner and that a hacky sack came through the window at one point.

But pretty much everything about the movie – even though I had really liked it – was very foreign the second time. I felt like I was watching a different film, and one that left an even stronger emotional resonance. There are very few films I can watch repeatedly and have a different experience with each time, but this has ended up being one of them.

HUGHES: You had an emotional response?

WILLIAMS: Yes!

HUGHES: What were you responding to?

WILLIAMS: This will probably be a long answer to a short question, but here we go: one thing I think the film does is set up scenes and little moments that are about building up pressure. A bottle of fizzy water hums and whistles because it contains effervescent water; they release the cap and the bottle makes a “sssss” sound, or, later, the cap just blows right off and knocks out a light bulb. In an early scene the mother comments on the older daughter having a pimple on her face that she popped and so it’s become very noticeable. The kids play Connect Four, which is a game in which the pieces mount up on top of each other in a kind of chaos, until there’s an alignment, the game ends, and the pieces get released from the bottom. And, of course, the scene with the sausage, which squirts on the uncle’s shirt.

The best example, though, is a bit different from the others because it isn’t about a literal build up of pressure, but an emotional one. A few minutes into the film, the mother tells a story about going to the movies with the grandmother. At the theater, she gets stuck in a strange position – the grandmother’s fallen asleep on her right and the stranger to her left has rested his foot against hers. She can’t move her foot because she’s waited too long and now it’d be awkward to move it, having not done so immediately. So she just sits there, stuck and imposed upon, growing more uncomfortable, until a trumpet blast in the film wakes up the grandmother. This allows everyone to shift and reposition themselves, releasing them from the hold-up they’ve been caught in.

I think the overall structure of the movie constitutes a similar build-up. In one of the last shots in the film the grandmother is sleeping in a back room and the cat comes in, steps over her, and then walks off screen. The next shot is a close-up of the cat, which falls asleep, and the sound of its purring swells and consumes the entire soundtrack. That particular moment for me was a kind of release, which I want to say was almost a phenomenological moment of pure sense experience. A subliminal tension had been building throughout the movie and there it all came rushing out.

That’s where I found the emotional core to the movie, where it became more than what I’d seen on the first viewing, which was “just” a Tati-esque Rube Goldberg machine with fun sounds and quirky moments – very pleasurable but, in a way, a little trivial.

HUGHES: It’s remarkable how similar our experiences were. I remember being impressed by the filmmaking and charmed by, as you said, its Tati-esque qualities. But on the second viewing, I was overwhelmed by it all. There’s so much hostility and anxiety just beneath the surface of every scene.

WILLIAMS: There’s a kind of amicable cruelty constantly on display throughout the movie, where characters are obviously very annoyed with one another, inexplicably mean to one another, but their responses are always counter-intuitively forgiving and accepting. There are a number of occasions where one character slaps another, and it’s always received with a smile – a genuine smile, as if they needed that slap.

HUGHES: When I revisited the film, I had no memory of the mother slapping the younger daughter, Clara. By the third viewing, I was worried for her. The way Clara’s treated, and her response to the situation, made me truly anxious.

Part of it, I think, is that the first time we see Clara, she’s sitting at the kitchen table, letting out one of her piercing, wide-mouthed screams. I suppose we could add that image to your list of pressure build-ups and releases, because as soon as her mother turns off the kitchen blender, Clara stops screaming, giggles, and goes back to doodling on her piece of paper. The Strange Little Cat is so quiet and so still, and characters tend to keep their emotions in check, so Clara’s scream is like a burst of expressionism that stains the surface-level geniality.

WILLIAMS: The acting in this film is being compared with Robert Bresson, which is, I think, a shorthand way of describing the very mechanical style of the performances. Something I’ve felt more with each viewing of the film is that many of the characters are almost technological, like automatons. They move from one very still pose into another in a very swift and exact motion, blinking and smirking and turning their heads with an extreme precision. It’s uncanny, really, and almost literally so. The uncanny was often attributed to the experience of looking at something that looks human but is revealed, on closer inspection, to not be. Even the word, from the German “Unheimlich,” directly translates to “unhomely,” so there is something unsettling with the characters’ robotic motions, and it creates a wonderful tension set against the domesticity of the mise-en-scène.

HUGHES: Yeah, generally speaking, the camera in The Strange Little Cat tends to focus on one character – Clara sitting at the end of the kitchen table, for example – and that character is oddly robotic, as you say. Meanwhile, the other bodies moving back and forth around him or her are more natural and recognizably human. And I mean “bodies” literally. I’ve never seen so many “headless” torsos pass through a frame.

I especially like the portraits of the mother. To drop a few more big names, they’re almost like something you’d see in a Carl Dreyer or Andrei Tarkovsky film. At key moments, Zürcher will cut to her in a still pose. She’s always lost in thought, isolated, with an inscrutable expression on her face. But all around her, people are mending buttons or fixing washing machines or making grocery lists. I can’t think of another filmmaker who combines those two radically different styles of performance in a single scene. And I certainly wouldn’t have predicted it could work.

WILLIAMS: There are so many aspects of this film – and of Zürcher’s short films as well – that I wouldn’t expect to work but do. Any self-respecting film student will challenge himself to go against textbook theories and forms for how to make a film the “proper” way, but that usually results in dumb little exercises that only reinforces why the theory or form became a convention in the first place. I think it’s fair to call Zürcher’s work thus far “exercises” because there’s a sense that he’s working through very formal ideas that are also very theoretical, and he doesn’t mind eliding “plot” entirely.

HUGHES: I wonder how intentionally theoretical it is for Zürcher? When I stumble upon a young filmmaker who has such a distinct voice, I’m tempted to chalk it up as intuition. You know, “Give this guy a camera and these are the kinds of images he’ll make. Give him a blank page and this is the kind of dialog he’ll write.”

And yet, as you said, he’s blatantly refusing to abide by the basic rules of film grammar. I’m especially fascinated by the way he avoids using traditional eye-line matches. There’s a sequence early on when the father and Clara leave to go grocery shopping. The apartment is finally quiet, and Zürcher cuts to the mother, who’s framed beautifully by light from the kitchen window. It’s the first of those portraits I was talking about. We get to just stare at her for a few seconds. The shot functions as a kind of glimpse into her subjectivity, but Zürcher doesn’t cut to a tighter close-up or to her perspective as we would expect. We never see what she’s staring at or get a better sense of what is going through her mind. Instead, Zürcher cuts to her son, who’s staring at her, unnoticed, from the other side of the room. It’s an eye-line match in reverse! The portrait of the mother is also his subjective perspective.

WILLIAMS: And I wonder if that doesn’t happen by accident. When I watched the film again after you noted the lack of eye-line matches, it felt as if he were actively resisting the impulse to make those matches. The fact that he almost never does, and that the film works perfectly well despite it – I’d just be surprised to find out that he’s not self-consciously avoiding certain expectations.

HUGHES: I’m always surprised when The Strange Little Cat ends after only 72 minutes because I feel like I’ve spent more time than that with the characters. There’s an emotional complexity that just doesn’t seem possible in a film so short. And the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced it’s a consequence of these little formal moves we’re describing.

Each time the film cuts from a portrait to an unexpected image of a spectator, we’re dropped into a kind of loop, where we’re forced to make sense of this new shot – the son on the other side of the kitchen, for example – and at the same time we also have to cycle back to the previous shot, re-contextualize it, and create a new association between the two images and between the two characters. This isn’t Claire Denis’ style of subjectivity where we get an intimate experience of the emotional and psychological lives of the characters. That cut is, in some ways, our best glimpse into the relationship between the mother and son, and it’s totally opaque.

This process that we’re forced into, of re-evaluating every image immediately after it’s gone, is such an interesting tactic. You and I are talking about this in a very removed, theoretical way, but it’s a deeply human, empathetic act. I wish I knew more about cognitive psychology because I’m sure the “loop” I’m trying to describe is a standard notion.

WILLIAMS: This will seem like a stretch at first, but, in that sense I think there are interesting similarities between Zürcher’s films and some of David Cronenberg’s. Cronenberg also often has a layered theoretical framework that is rendered human at the end. I’ve been thinking of him lately in particular because he’s made two films, The Fly (1986) and Naked Lunch (1991), that are deeply indebted to Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” and I was taken aback to learn that The Strange Little Cat is influenced by it as well.

In Kafka’s story, Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to find that he’s turning into an insect, and the crucial problem of “The Metamorphosis” is that he’s stuck at this point between being truly human and becoming fully insect. In a way, that place of being stuck links back to what I think is the fundamental theme of Zürcher’s film. These characters are in a kind of flux or limbo. Or you could say they’re between two subjectivities.

You used the word “hostility” earlier. People in The Strange Little Cat aren’t comfortable with themselves or with each other. They speak to each other, but they don’t listen to one another. If someone asks a question, they’re almost always given a one-word answer. “Yes.” “Right.” It’s all a very utilitarian way of maintaining their relationships.

In a way, I almost think his project with this film, as it relates to “The Metamorphosis,” is this kind of not really knowing where you are or why you’re there or how to get back to where you were or how to get onto the next stage. The reason the mother ends up being such a tragic figure is because her family seems to be in a transitory or ruptured state, and she seems to not really know where to go with that. From an emotional standpoint, there’s this sense that she’s in two places at once, or stuck trying to get between subjectivities, and nothing is really progressing in either direction.

HUGHES: Each time I watch the film, the reverie sequences become more moving and dramatic. The mother with her trips to the restaurant, the daughter with her orange peels, the son with the drunk girl at the party. These characters are telling stories that are clearly of deep significance to the teller. Each story is such a desperate effort to share something with the people around them. I mean, the poor niece who shows up with her cello tries to tell a story about reading a book at the swimming pool, and she can’t even get to the end of it because people keep interrupting her. It’s just brutal.

WILLIAMS: There’s a wonderful scene in Zürcher’s short film, I Like This Song Today (2007), in which a young woman tells a story about sitting on a train and seeing a man with a ponytail. It’s only after she notices his reflection in the window that she realizes she’s actually looking at two people, the man and a woman in front of him. The woman with the ponytail is blocked from the main character’s perspective, but someone who’d have been sitting right next to her would have had no problem seeing that it was actually two people. In Zürcher’s films, there’s an absurdity and also a kind of tragedy in this limited subjectivity.

I think that’s why the shot of the cat is so moving. The cat is as close as we come to an objective observer. The cat isn’t prone to feeling the chaos or the tension or the family drama or the cruelty happening in front of it. If someone is slapped and smiles immediately afterward, it’s just a completely removed observation. Somehow, having this close-up of a cat as it falls asleep, going from a conscious to unconscious state, provides a closure to that entire dilemma that the film sets up.

HUGHES: That’s a nice analysis of the cat shot, but again it’s fairly theoretical and intellectual. When you saw the film, your response was primarily emotional.

WILLIAMS: Right. Earlier I described that moment of seeing the cat as a phenomenological experience. The way you respond to a film will almost always be emotional, and whether or not you take to that emotional response will dictate the amount of effort you’ll make to intellectualize your experience. So I would say that as a response to the very strange feelings and the swell of emotions I experienced at the sight of that cat . . . well, I want to understand why.

It’s similar to the experience I have when I watch Abbas Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987), a simple film about a child returning a notebook to his classmate who he knows will get in trouble if he doesn’t do his homework. The very last shot is of the teacher flipping through the child’s notebook, and just before the film cuts to black and the credits start to roll we see a dried flower that has been placed between two pages. Most of the people I know who’ve seen that film, the moment they see that flower there’s this rush of adrenaline and emotion that is pre-conceptual, experienced before there’s even been a chance to mentally process what’s been seen. It goes from the screen straight to the viscera.

HUGHES: The old Walter Pater line, “All art aspires to the condition of music.”

WILLIAMS: Exactly. I’m knee-deep in all of this at the moment because of some research I’m doing in grad school, thinking about new ways of interpreting emotion and experience. Anyway, so, the cat. I don’t know if it’s tapping into some primal thing that’s lodged in my brain after millions of years of evolution or if it’s something else. {Laughs} But I want to put it into words.

HUGHES: There’s a scene near the end when the lights go out unexpectedly, and the aunt starts taking pictures. . . .

WILLIAMS: I always forget about that scene! When I watched the film in the cinema, I was struck by how the flashes of light were actually pretty harsh to look at. I would feel it physically in my eyeballs because they had adjusted to the darkness.

HUGHES: See, that’s why I mentioned it, and it’s one of the things I’d like to be able to explain better. What is happening to me, the viewer, when I’m hit by those flashes of light? It’s partly physical, right? I mean, The Strange Little Cat is an audience-friendly narrative film, but that’s an avant-garde move – a kind of borrowing from flicker films.

WILLIAMS: Zürcher does seem drawn to pure aesthetic moments like that. There are these transformations that occur where the narrative goes from being a film about process to a film about watching visual phenomena happen on the screen. In his short film Reinhardtstrasse (2009), there’s a scene where the main character is standing outside of a bedroom, listening to music. Colorful light is flowing out of the room and landing on her face, bathing over her. We watch her dance for a minute or two, and it’s really . . . pleasant.

HUGHES: I’ve probably watched that scene nine times. {Laughs}

WILLIAMS: It’s so great. So, the aunt with her camera, then, is both a moment of visual phenomena happening on screen and another example of a limited subjectivity that isn’t shared. She takes a photo and then that image flashes momentarily on her camera’s screen. But we never see it, so I feel like I’m being denied a certain perspective. She even seems to take a number of photos of people or objects that are outside of the frame, so it’s another way of addressing the extra-cinematic space.

HUGHES: Zürcher does that with sound as well. A couple years ago I interviewed James Benning about his film Twenty Cigarettes (2011), which is a portrait series in which each subjects lights, smokes, and discards a single cigarette. I asked him why he staged each person in front of a two-dimensional background – a wall, for example – and he said it was because he wanted sound to open up three-dimensional space. I was reminded of that conversation a few minutes into my first viewing of The Strange Little Cat, because the same thing happens in that cramped little kitchen. The camera is fixed on one person, but the rest of the space in the room is created by the soundtrack.

We keep circling back to a theme, I think, which is that Zürcher’s formal decisions all make the viewer an active participant in the creation of characters, the creation of relationships, the creation of physical space. You can’t sit passively with this film. He just won’t let you.