Home Video Hovel: The Strange Little Cat, by Scott Nye
Most first features these days feel less like the debut of a new voice than audition pieces by filmmakers hoping to get a studio gig. The goal, increasingly, is to fit in, to develop a standard three-act structure with “likable,” “relatable” protagonists that culminates with an upbeat, optimistic ending. If they can sing along with or dance to a pop song at some point, that would be ideal.
Ramon Zücher directorial debut, The Strange Little Cat, has many pleasures, none of them familiar. There’s the title, for starters – a cat does feature in the film, but it is neither strange nor little. There’s the length – a mere 72 minutes, unbecoming of a commercial feature. There’s the structure, which pops in and out of a day (or perhaps a lifetime) as a family gathers together for dinner in a small apartment, which the film only leaves briefly. There’s the shot structure – the film is composed of entirely still frames which people enter and exit in tightly-choreographed rhythms. There’s a screaming child, a remote-control helicopter, faulty appliances, and ill-behaving sausages. I’ve seen the film three times, and I still couldn’t tell you a damn thing about its “themes” or “larger meaning,” but it is one of the most joyful films simply to witness of the past five years.
You could say it touches on middle-class ennui or the almost reflexive way families interact – some mixture of bitter and loving – that’s underscored by the manner in which they move around each other. Even when the light goes out (one of the film’s great gags that’s intensely foreshadowed and yet a complete surprise), they cross the room as though predetermined. The family is representative of the ideal “single unit,” knowing each other so well that such things are possible.
And yet none of that is what I found touching about the experience of watching the film, one in which I was so wrapped up that, the first time I saw it, I immediately watched it again. It was, above all, Zücher’s inventiveness, his willingness to go for jokes alternatingly weird and subtle, and a persistent tone of, shall we say, malevolent whimsy, made this an incredibly satisfying experience.
While I would have loved to see this gorgeously-lit film available on Blu-ray, the DVD presentation is top-notch, offering very good clarity, contrast, and depth. There are two supplements on the disc – Zücher’s brief introduction to the film at the New Directors/New Films program in New York in 2014, and a Q&A with Zücher and other members of the cast and crew from that same program. The introduction only runs a couple minutes, but the Q&A is a full thirty-five, and quite interesting, covering a range of topics, including the genesis of the project, Bela Tarr’s involvement, directing the cast (and performing) within such a specific and constrained design, and the need to toe the line between mystery and explication. It’s a very good inclusion.
The Strange Little Cat made my top ten in 2013 when it didn’t have a U.S. distributor, and surely would have made my 2014 list had I not used it up. It’s a very funny, imaginative piece of small-scale filmmaking, and I’m very excited for more people to get the chance to see it.