Before the New York Film Festival opens on September 28, I’ll want to catch up with what the critics have been saying about a few more films that screened in Toronto, beginning with The Strange Little Cat. It premiered in Berlin way back in February and has screened at several festivals since (San Francisco, for example) but hasn’t made the lineups for the NYFF or London. No word yet on distribution either, but this one will surely find its way to you one way or another. When it does, catch it.
“Running a mere 72 minutes,” writes Mike D’Angelo at the Dissolve, “it’s a whimsical wisp of a movie, reportedly devised by [Swiss-born, Berlin-educated] director Ramon Zürcher for a filmmaking seminar conducted by Hungary’s retired giant, Béla Tarr. Apart from a few brief interludes that fall midway between reverie and flashback, the action is confined to a single cramped apartment, and there isn’t a story so much as a series of complex interactions between people, objects, and the titular cat (which is strange only insofar as every cat is inherently inexplicable). Yet it’s perhaps the most purely beguiling movie at this year’s festival—the rare film that offers a new way of looking at the everyday world.”
“The Strange Little Cat can feel like a whirring toy, a screen brimming with pointillist delights,” writes Fernando F. Croce in the Notebook, “and then one look at the subtle yet lingering grief on the mother’s drawn face and the playful surfaces suddenly pulse with melancholy, even ominous undercurrents. It’s a miniature that grows larger and more secretive, tenser and more flowing the more you gaze into it.”
“Zürcher’s ingenious debut feature suggests what Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) might’ve been like if Jacques Tati had got around to making it first,” suggests Jason Anderson at Artforum.
For Blake Williams, writing for Ioncinema when he saw the film in Cannes, “a filmmaker that often comes to mind while watching Zürcher’s film (other than Jacques Tati) is Lucrecia Martel, who’s own debut, La Ciénaga is a spiritual cousin to the one in this film, both expertly depicting families in a simultaneous mode of repellence and love toward one another.”
In a piece for this summer’s issue of Cinema Scope, Michael Sicinski noted that some have also cited Bresson “when trying to get a bead on just what Zürcher is up to.” And “if he evokes such lofty comparisons, it’s because his approach is, on its most fundamental levels, so out of step with how narrative film is usually made. The Strange Little Cat is a film that prioritizes confinement, small movements within that confinement, and the unexpected alleviation of that confinement through imagination and memory; if Tati’s grand subject was modern living and its discontents, and Bresson’s was, to some extent, the articulation of spaces between bodies and things in order to delineate their irreducible singularity, then Zürcher is primarily concerned with the poetry of tight spaces.”
Josef Braun: “It may be the weirdest most seemingly normal movie I’ve ever seen.”
The Strange Little Cat screened in the Wavelengths program in Toronto.
Update, 9/19: “Like last year’s similar world cinema hit, Neighboring Sounds, Zürcher uses noise, itself, as a character that both connects and disassociates,” writes Peter Labuza at the Film Stage. “Occasionally, he breaks from the action for small montages set to Thee More Shallows’s ‘Pulchritude,’ which give us intimate close-up on the objects that have been causing this audible chaos: the dropping of orange peels, a plastic bag, a ‘magic bottle’ that appears to spin endlessly, and even the boy outside playing hacky sack. Where is this all leading? Perhaps the difficulty of A Strange Little Cat is the opposite of Neighboring Sounds—while that film ended up seeming too tidy in its narrative depiction of class tensions, Zürcher’s thematic articulations are harder to place…. Cat can, on occasion, seem more like an experiment in filmic language than a work to be examined—and, yet, there is something worth following in the traces he leaves us.”
Update, 9/27: In Review Online‘s Kenji Fujishima finds that a “sense of desperation underpins even the most amusing gags in The Strange Little Cat…. Even the near-mechanical precision of the film’s orchestration acquires a darker edge in such a context: domestic life as a never-ending ballet of routine. (augustafreepress.com) And yet, even if its perspective is ultimately bleak, the sheer level of cinematic invention acts as a rejuvenating tonic, finding humor and beauty in sadness.”
Update, 11/10: Darren Hughes and Blake Williams have been talking about The Strange Little Cat and have turned their conversation into a piece for AFI Fest. William: “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: “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.”
Update, 11/16: “Before coming to Berlin, Zürcher graduated from Bern University of the Arts where he majored in video but also painted,” notes Esther Buss in frieze. “This history is evident in Das merkwürdige Kätzchen, as are his affinities with the history of film: with Jacques Tati, for example, and his cinema of unruly objects and equally important everyday sounds. Zürcher’s still lifes bear traces of the painterly. His handling of image and sound—on- and off-screen—feels like a collage. Added to this is a sculptural understanding of the material world and a feel for installation-like arrangements of objects. The choppy montage sequences in particular, accompanied by post-rock chamber music, are reminiscent of museum display, focusing attention on individual things as if in an exhibition.”
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