Cat People

Flashy transition: Paul (Malcolm McDowell), a guy who we know turns into a panther when aroused, is flirting with a blond babe who’s wandering through a cemetery. He asks her, holding up his camera, to say, “Cheese,” and she does. Cut from Paul holding camera to eye, to: Oliver (John Heard) holding camera to eye and snapping a picture of Paul’s sister Irena (Nastassia Kinski) in a shack somewhere on the edge of the bayou. Now, there’s a pretty sinister suggestion being made with that transition, and a director who cuts like that better know what he’s doing.

Let’s check this out then: Paul will have sex with the blonde and then dismember her; this is rather frustrating for him (not to mention how she must feel about it), as he is doomed never to have a satisfactory sexual experience except with his sister. Irena will turn down the sexual advances that Oliver is about to make because she thinks she will turn into a cat and kill him. So both scenes are steeped in sex and the threat of death; what about this connection made between Paul and Oliver? Well, they both want the same woman, and each is working out of his own obsession. Each union, if consummated, would lead to a kind of destruction, though Paul does seem a bit more literally lethal than Oliver. Yeah, I guess it’s okay to have this linking transition, but I wind up asking myself a question I’ve asked a lot about this new version of Cat People: did it have to be so darned obvious?

Obviousness isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but … Paul Schrader knows he’s making an ambitious film here, and he just can’t seem to resist spelling things out for us once in a while. The nifty prologue, which sort of shows how the race of cat people began (one of the best shots in the picture here: a woman tied to a tree, about to be taken by a panther, looks down at the beast as this eerie process night sky slides behind her: thrilling!), ends with a closeup of one of these ancient cat women and slowly dissolves into the face of Irena in a present-day airport. This replacing of one face with another sets up a device that’s used a couple times again in the movie, but is sure seems unnecessary; if we’d simply discovered Nastassia Kinski wandering around an airport in longshot, is there anybody out there who couldn’t have guessed she was a descendant of the feline types?

And Schrader has let some elements that might better have been left in subtext rise to the surface. When a guy cuts from a bust of Beatrice to his leading lady, you’re left with the uncomfortable feeling that the director is trying to make a point. And Schrader has Oliver reading and memorizing Vita Nuova, for croonin’ out loud! (There is a genuine mystery to the scene, however: Does that voice on the tape that Oliver speaks along with belong to Malcolm McDowell?)

For a while now it’s seemed as though, if only Schrader could consume and digest his mythic and literary concerns and sink his teeth into a genre picture, the results could be something exceptional, and would surely outstrip his other movies (he’s the director of Hardcore and American Gigolo, and the screenwriter of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull). Cat People sounded like the project where this would all happen, but Schrader hasn’t integrated his ambitions with his flesh-and-blood story here; sometimes he doesn’t even seem interested in providing basic narrative logic (like: How does a panther get out of his cage at the zoo? Surely the dangerous animal would have been watched. And we don’t know when or how Irena returns from Richmond to New Orleans late in the film; she just sort of reappears). It’s particularly frustrating that Cat People doesn’t come off because much of it is good and some of it is really haunting. Some reverse-action stuff is neat, especially because Malcolm McDowell is so catlike to begin with. Some of the fancy color scheme (designed by Ferdinando Scarfiotti) is terrific, and some of it seems pretty meaningless. Giorgio Moroder’s music is effective, and his theme for the opening ritual is spellbinding (good David Bowie song, too).

Schrader’s best decisions are in casting: McDowell is just right and moves beautifully throughout his rather small part, and Heard and Annette O’Toole are very good, both appearing on the verge of coming into their own as recognizable stars. Ed Begley Jr. makes a nothing part into a funny and special presence, singing “What’s New, Pussycat?” to a man-eating panther. And Nastassia Kinski is a unique screen creature, with her exotic looks and accent(s) giving even the most ordinary dialogue a new and mysterious quality. If Cat People may try to work up a mysteriousness in a facile and often heavy-handed way, there’s no doubt about the authentically strange qualities of Miss Kinski. She’s something else again.

First published in The Informer, May 1982

An odd film, lumpy yet sinuous, ludicrous yet spooky. Also, this was when Nastassja still spelled her first name with an i. I played the Bowie song quite a bit – “Putting Out Fire,” a good one.

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