[This review was included in my Favorite Films of 2014 post. But, for the archives, it gets a post of its own.]
In one scene, two young people play Connect Four.
Do you remember Connect Four? I loved playing this game when I was a kid. There was the tic-tac-toe fun of trying to see connections before somebody else did, but it was more complicated than tic-tac-toe, and it also had tactile elements that made it more satisfying: the sound of the chips clattering together, the sound of them dropping into the grid slots, and the oh-so-satisfying sound of unhinging the rack at the end of the game so the chips fell out and cascaded across the tabletop like reward tokens from a Las Vegas slot machine.
It seems an incidental moment in The Strange Little Cat, Ramon Zurcher’s one-of-a-kind, somewhat experimental investigation of the controlled chaos in a French family’s overcrowded flat.
But there are no incidental moments. All things here are important, a little strange, interconnected in ways obvious and subtle, potentially revelatory.
Or perhaps it is better to say that all things here are incidental, and that one of the movie’s most rewarding endeavors is in the way it makes that very incidental-ness its subject, so that we begin to see that “incidental” is actually quite meaningful; “incidental” is anything but arbitrary or insignificant. The incidental details of this day, as it plays out with so many bodies in such a small space, are alive with clues to secrets, hints of stories, unusual relationships, mysterious histories.
That game of Connect Four? It’s almost crying out for our attention, saying, “Do you see what they’re doing? Isn’t this the strangest thing? In the middle of a busy home, on a day when guests are coming, and the air is full of anticipation, they’re sitting down to play this silly and seemingly meaningless little game: they’re taking time to stack things up, to try and make connections, to see the possibilities within a grid. And that, moviegoer, is what you’re invited to do here. What connections do you see? Can you discover enough connections here to make sense of something?”
What’s more — there is a fantastic particularity to everything in the picture, a tactile specificity, that gives us the sense of a real family, with a real history, in a real flat, where they interact in so many ways that anybody new to this home will be somewhat uncomfortable, trying to decipher the codes and cues, the roles and relationships, at work here.
I may be totally overreaching in my interpretation of why there’s a Connect Four game.
But when you begin to sense a poetic meaningfulness in one element of a work of art, you begin to get the sense that there are other elements just waiting to reveal themselves to you. And if you go on making those connections, finding that your intuition about one thing leads to ensuing intuitions about other things, the work of art comes alive. As film critic Michael Sicinski writes, “[A]ny fragment of Cat could be productively subjected to close analysis and could conceivably serve as a synecdochal emblem for how the film operates as a whole.” (I highly recommend his excellent review at Cinema-scope.)
When, as you lean forward and began fishing for meaning in what appears to be madness, you begin to suspect the significance of a particular gesture or offhand remark, the movie becomes like one of those “Magic Eye” paintings, and you begin to feel that excitement of something mysterious revealing itself. The details of the film become like a net cast over something elusive and alive. What is this net for, and what is caught within it? Can we make out its contours?
What is this movie about?
Is it really about the cat (who seems to play such a small role)? Or is the title referring to something else entirely — perhaps the spirit of curiosity that teases us and draws us into the space, leading us about on quite unnatural paths between people, places, and spaces?
For a lot of viewers, the film will create a claustrophobic feeling. You may find yourself desperately hoping that we eventually leave this rather chaotic apartment — this kitchen, this narrow corridor, these bedrooms, the noisy dishwasher, the clamor of the washing machine, the layering of conversations as people (Who are they? What are their relationships?) keep coming and going?
But I had a very different experience. I felt more and more exhilarated the more that I began figuring out what the hell was going on. It was as if the space was getting smaller (as more and more characters, human or otherwise, and more and more stories filled up the flat) but the world was getting bigger. No, take out the “as if.” This is exactly what was happening. As I became aware that this entanglement of signs and suggestions would go on revealing itself to be more and more complicated the more I paid attention, the more I felt free to explore and guess and discover surprises.
And as we continue to make connections, to make sense of things, surprises become that much more startling. There is a moment – I won’t say what happens — that made the whole audience jump and laugh. It caused everything onscreen to change a little. It brought something new out of the characters in response. One character in particular responded in a way we hadn’t seen through the whole film.
Many reviewers have pointed out the influence of Jacques Tati on these proceedings. (But where Tati observed comical “chaos” in large metropolitan environments, Zurcher finds that much misadventure in one small residence.) Others have thought of Bresson for the lack of conventional drama and emotion — Acting with a capital “A” — onscreen. It can go on and on. I thought of Wim Wenders and his dedication to purposeful meandering, to serious-minded haphazardness, in films like Wings of Desire and The End of Violence. For cinephiles, there is a wonderland of reference (and… references?) to discuss and postulate. At ArtsandFaith.com, my Filmwell colleague Michael Leary wrote, “I would love the chance to talk more about Strange Little Cat…. There is Vertov in the edits, a Dardenne interest in family as a base unit of society, a Varda love of mothers and daughters, a Truffaut appreciation of children, a Berlin School economy, a Wes Anderson curiosity in setting, a… Godardian sound design?” I added, “And there is a Kieslowskian interest in reaching up to shove plastic bottles into recycling bins.”
Makes me want to shout “Connect Four!”
I also observed that, while many films that ask us to “look closer” at our lives lead to an increasing sense of wonder and delight, The Strange Little Cat does something different. While there are some joyful and celebratory moments, there is a pervading sense of anxiety — which I suspect has something to do with the effect of modern technology and efficiency and automation on our lives. The cyclical sounds of this apartment become the stressful ones, whereas the sound of a bottle spinning waywardly and unevenly inspires delight. Sometimes, the tyranny of the automated overwhelms, and when it does, anxiety builds to a fever pitch.
I began to wonder: Is there a connection between this, and the sense that something might, at any moment, break down?
And then I began to wonder: Does that have anything to do with why one character in this family seems frequently… offline? As if she knows something that nobody else does? Or, even worse, maybe she doesn’t know something. Maybe she’s losing something. Her memory. Her ability to exist within this extravagance of connections. Maybe that’s why her favorite thing is to go to a cafe and surround herself with strangers.
I don’t know.
I’m not completely off-base, feeling such anxiety. One of my favorite reviewers, Darren Hughes, has seen it several times, and he says he feels more anxious every time. And then there’s the fact that the film began as an experimental retelling of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. So, yeah — that’s intriguing. (A moth does play an important role in the film… since all roles here seem important.)
But I really don’t know.
And I love that. All the more reason to revisit it.
How can you see it? Well, right now it’s streaming for subscribers at Fandor. Otherwise, good luck. I sincerely hope you get the chance to see it on a big screen, with an excellent sound system. Anything less than that, and the experience will be less immersive.
I am extremely grateful that I had the chance to see The Strange Little Cat on the big screen at Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum. (Thank you, Northwest Film Forum!) I proceeded to sing its praises on Facebook and elsewhere, hoping to persuade my Seattle friends to catch it while they could. That moment came and went, and I’m not sure if I sold a single ticket. But I tried.
What’s more, I had the chance to see it while two of my favorite people — the attentive art photographer, writer, and director Tom Wilkinson and Christianity Today’s chief film critic Alissa Wilkinson — were in town, and we were joined for the screening by another extraordinarily talented writer, Lauren Wilford. And after the movie was over (there were only about 20 people in attendance), we had the pleasure of sampling excellent ales at the nearby Elysian Brewery while discussing our varying interpretations of what we had just experienced.
And that, my friends, has a great deal to do with why this great moviegoing experience became even greater. How often do we “chew our food” like that? How often do we spend time retracing, reliving, reviewing, and rethinking the experiences we just had? That second part of the experience is what makes a moviegoing adventure complete. It is what allows us to ruminate and to participate. In recreating the movie in our imaginations through memory, reflection, and interpretation, it becomes a part of us and we, in a small way, become a part of the movie itself and its life in the world. Moreover, we learn things about ourselves and each other, which draws us closer together, learning from other perspectives and coming to respect just how different we are from one another, just how much we can enhance one another’s experiences.
The experience of seeing and discussing The Strange Little Cat was the most enlivening, enthralling, and joyful time I’ve had at the movies in years. It woke me up in ways that I like to be awake.