Cat Person


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Cat Person
"The central portion of the film is delciously discomfiting." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Nobody wants ambivalence in a relationship - but in a movie setting, it can be good. Someone should have told Michelle Ashford this before she tried to contrive an involved ending for this adaptation of Kristen Roupenian’s short story from The New Yorker.

That original tale - which charts, from a young woman’s perspective, what happens to her on a depressingly grim date - leaves its options hanging in the air allowing for interpretation, whereas the film, in the end, wants to nail on some certainty.

Things start so well for sophomore Margot (Emilia Jones) and the film. Margot works at a cinema concessions stand and has a meet-cute with a tall and bearded older guy, a mild flirtation that leads to frisson and phone messages. His name is Robert (Nicholas Braun) and what he chiefly seems to offer is possibility as Ashford successfully taps into the way that in the modern world epistolary romance can be almost instantaneous thanks to phones.

The texts, which continue after Margot goes home from college to her parents on break, blossom into a sort of personal mythology, in which Margot is able to shape Robert almost anyway she wants in her imagination. Her roommate Taylor (Geraldine Viswanathan) points this out to her but in the first flush of potential romance, Margot isn’t interested in taking stock.

Once Margot is back in the city, the time comes for something more concrete and it’s here a whole different sort of anxieties kick in - heralded at the start of the film by the Margaret Atwood quote: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Now the messaging mythology meets something else, as Margot begins to find herself idly wondering, ‘What if he’s a serial killer?’. This might be an extreme thought but it highlights the way that dating can often call for a woman to put themselves in a vulnerable position with someone who they barely know.

The central portion of the film is deliciously discomfiting - recalling the likes of previous Sundance film Promising Young Woman - as Robert’s ungainly attempts at seduction are at there most open for interpretation. We’re presented with events from Margot’s perspective, with her imagination leaping from romantic fantasies to imagining Robert attacking her. All of this requires a lot of tonal manoeuvring and, for the most part Fogel, keeps a grip on things, aided by atmospheric cinematography from Manuel Billeter and scoring from Heather McIntosh that keeps normality lying close to dread. Particularly impressive is the moment when Margot and Robert first snog. We’re so used to seeing perfect smooches on camera but this is anything but. It simply looks all wrong, as though Robert is virtually eating Margot - and not in a good way. The question is whether there’s anything sinister about this or is just an example of Robert’s over-eager awkwardness.

The neatest trick of Ashford’s script is to give Margot other people to bounce her opinions off, sometimes it’s her roommate or her college professor (Isabella Rossellini, making her presence felt in a small role) and, at others, she allows Margot to have conversations with herself about the way she is rationalising a situation, perhaps going ahead with things simply because it seems ‘easier’ on some level than attempting to get out of them. This raises uncomfortable questions around female complicity in difficult situations that are sure to spark debate when the film gets a wide release.

The ending is too big and brassy for what has gone before and also requires us to believe both Margot and Robert would do things that seem highly unlikely given the full set of circumstances and their established personalities. This is two-thirds of a great movie, after that, all nuance goes up in flames in favour of the formulaic.

Reviewed on: 28 Jan 2023
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College student Margot meets 33-year-old Robert at the cinema where she works. After a casual flirtation at the concession stand, they carry on conversations through texts. As their perceptions of each other collide, events spiral out of control. Based on The New Yorker short story by Kristen Roupenian.
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Director: Susanna Fogel

Writer: Michelle Ashford

Starring: Emilia Jones, Nicholas Braun, Geraldine Viswanathan, Hope Davis, Fred Melamed, Isabella Rossellini

Year: 2023

Runtime: 120 minutes

Country: France, US

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