In the late 1960s, Tony Carey, the brewing director at Guinness in Ireland, devised and patented a mechanism that could simulate in an ordinary can of beer the frothy head enjoyed by a pint of draught. This “widget,” as it is now known, is a hollow sphere of translucent plastic a little smaller than a table-tennis ball, which sits affixed with a tiny hole in one side to the bottom of an aluminum can. Alan Forage, the director of product development at Guinness at the time of the widget’s introduction, offered this explanation of what he called the “In-Can System,” or ICS: “Beer containing dissolved gas is filled under pressure into the can and the can is sealed. Once the lid has been put on, the pressures in the can and inside the chamber equilibrate and beer is forced into the chamber, which becomes partially filled. When a consumer opens the can, the higher pressure in the can is released into the atmosphere. The pressure drop forces beer and gas out of the chamber through the small hole. It is this which creates the characteristic surge in Guinness Draught.”
I suspect that director Ramon Zürcher would appreciate the design of the Guinness widget, for he seems, in his debut feature The Strange Little Cat, unusually fascinated by systems of tension and release. In fact the film itself is something of a cinematic widget: in it pressure seems to build and build and stabilize until, suddenly punctured, it creates its characteristic surge. Film critic Blake Williams, in an essential conversation on the film with Darren Hughes, catalogues moments of pressure and release, and it’s worth quoting his observations at length: “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.”
Taken individually, these seem like largely comic moments, and, indeed, the film itself might best be described as a comedy. The oft-observed precedent here, of course, is Jacques Tati, who likewise made punchlines of the smallest physical gestures: the effect of Zürcher’s squirting sausage and blown bottle cap would not be out of place in the world of Tati’s Playtime, where, for instance, every fixture in a newly minted five-star restaurant seems on the verge of collapse. Tati enjoyed composing static frames whose order and calm might suddenly be intruded upon: think of the early scene in Playtime in which Hulot, sitting quietly in a nondescript office building’s waiting room, observes a businessman whose every moment creates an absurdly exaggerated sound, or the brief shot after the climax in which a busload of tourists, pulling up beside a window washer, are treated to a view of the skyline when the reflective glass is tilted at just the right angle. Zürcher has inherited this reverence for the profound comic power of everyday objects—his gift, like Tati’s, lay in investing all things commonplace or banal with a charge that renders them suddenly and briefly extraordinary.
What distinguishes Zürcher from Tati, among other things, is his sense of scale. Tati conceived of worlds as machines inhabited by the cogs that ran them, and part of his genius lay in his capacity to realize visions so expansive. (This proved his fatal flaw: the grandeur of Playtime would cost him a small fortune and send him into a financial ruin from which he would never recover.) The Strange Little Cat, by contrast, conceives of its world in miniature, and nearly all of its seventy-two-minute running time is confined to a conspicuously small German apartment. Scale, you might say, seems no less important to Zürcher than it was to Tati, and it is precisely the limitations of the space that he finds appealing. The size of this apartment is central to the pressure building unbearably within it. As is Zürcher’s rigor in shooting it: he favors tight close-ups and medium shots crammed with bodies and limbs, the better to impress upon us a sense of these quarters as cramped, overcrowded, and painfully confined. It’s suffocating, and naturally we want out: we want to see the pressure released.
There’s another, equally significant pressure building throughout: an unspoken tension in the family that shares this space. The story of the film, such as it is, is a story of a shared space: a mother, father, children, grandmother and cat make the best of the room they have, which is evidently causing considerable strain. The atmosphere seems unusually hostile—in fact it almost seems as if animosity, not familial love or affection, were animating the action scene to scene. This is particularly true of the mother character (Jenny Schily), who, though perfectly civil, speaks to her children with such thinly veiled contempt that watching her interact with them becomes its own exercise in dramatic suspense. The mother also furnishes the story with one of two crucial flashback sequences: in it she describes a recent trip to the movies during which a man sitting beside her rests his foot on hers by mistake. Having waited too long to remove her foot without embarrassing them both but feeling an overwhelming need to change positions, she is forced to endure the discomfort until a loud noise in the film permits her to shift freely. More tension and release: even in the world outside their apartment Zürcher’s characters aren’t free from pressure.
Though all of this compression and strain moves the one character apparently unbothered by any of it: the eponymous cat, an orange tabby who sleeps, paws and purrs his way around the domestic grind. In a way Zürcher positions the cat as the central figure of the film—not only the one which connects the others and stands outside their drama but also, in an important sense, the one whose perspective we’re encouraged to adopt. The Strange Little Cat has been described as the world seen through feline eyes, and that seems as good as description of what’s going on here as any: it accounts for how utterly strange even the most ordinary household objects and actions suddenly appear. Our rituals and social contracts are incomprehensible to our cats, who doubtless regard us bizarre creatures going about nonsensical business instead of relaxing and taking a nap. Maybe the pressure of the film seems unbearable because we finally understand how awfully odd it is to do whatever we do with our lives—maybe the release we want so desperately is to be free of it all, or for everything to be as simple as it is for our pets. That’s why the film’s only moment of unmitigated pleasure—its one moment of pure release—is when we snuggle up close to the cat as it sleeps and purrs. All the pressure melts away and for a few seconds we’re out of our world and into a better one.