For the first fifteen minutes of Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat (Das merkwürdige Kätzchen) we become intimately familiar with the layout of the kitchen in an apartment. Whilst the various members of the residing family and their two pets make their way through the space, the focus is not on what they say but where they’re looking when they say it; interacting with one another on and off screen, the sequence of shots and the characters’ lines of sight efficiently tell us a huge amount of spatial information. What makes The Strange Little Cat impress even more is the recursive shift to a focus on the relationships between and influences on each of the characters within this newly-mapped space. These intertwining elements make Zürcher’s film a consistently surprising and intelligent commentary on the oft-ignored inner complexities of daily life.
As one could expect, with this hyper-specific focus, not a lot actually happens in a macro level throughout The Strange Little Cat. In essence, we see a family preparing for a special dinner before heading off to see a relative’s cello recital. What makes so much of the film completely arresting is the amount of information packed into small moments. We’re positioned very early on as being aligned with the children of the central family – the young Clara (Mia Kasalo) and her two adult siblings Simon (Luk Pfaff) and Karin (Anjorka Strechel), who have come home for a few nights. Clara is the closest thing to an audience conduit; she spends a lot of time in the film testing the boundaries of the authority of her parents and siblings just as we begin to learn the relationship dynamics that surround her. The fact that her parents are often asked by relatives whether their dog or cat “is allowed to do that” is something internalised by Clara, she’s aiming to shatter their placid assent. The way Zürcher positions the adults in the film is often at a distance, not only because of the fact that the Mother (Jenny Schily) and Father (Matthias Dittmer) aren’t given names at any point. As the film progresses and more and more relatives arrive, its the Mother who becomes increasingly reserved and withdrawn; in the final scenes of the film we spend time with her as she seems to come to terms with the notion of time passing across the day and in life more broadly.
Any pretense of replicating Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles in formal rigidity and narrative, though, is jettisoned fairly early on. As the main family members each recount a memory we suddenly cut to a flashback of that moment, these anecdotal asides feeling almost like a conscious effort on the part of the characters to push poetry and unstructured humanity into a narrative that reveals the inner machinations of normalcy. Simon’s anecdote is perhaps the best example of the poetic nature of these segments, his recounting of a drunk woman at a party has no clear begging or end and just exists as a tossed off continuation of the family’s penchant for seemingly out of nowhere stories, the telling of which often reflects a tension bubbling under the surface between the family members with regards to comprehension of each other’s true desires.
This idea of influence on one another is another clever means through which Zürcher reflects the machinations of human mundanity. Early on we’re told about Clara’s issues with spelling and Karin’s decision to stop correcting it as a point of humour, though we’re shown a wide array of transferred knowledge and behavior between the siblings – the way Karin and Simon both say “fortunately” to end a conversation, Karin echoing her mother (or vice versa) when putting a dab of blood on Clara’s nose to make her into “a clown”. This osmosis is unstoppable, just as Karin eventually relents to correct Clara’s error-laden shopping list.
Alexander Hasskerl’s cinematography is particularly worth singling out in achieving this strange balance between the mathematical investigation of behaviour and a warm and naturalistic depiction of daily life. Every shot is cleanly framed, with strong colours giving the seemingly normal rooms the feel of a theatrical set – the pastel colours worn by each family member, which helps to initially define their identity, furthers this paradoxical sense of staged reality.1 Not everything is shot with an organic rhythm, though, at points we shift to focusing on static objects in various sections scored by a Thee More Shallows track, which almost feel like act breaks, or dips in between narrative movements. This stocktake of time passing in the objects integral to earlier interactions is yet another clever tool in positioning the viewer to absorb narrative, concocting nostalgia for moments we witnessed less than half an hour earlier.
The film does start to falter in its second half, though, beginning with a shot of a Connect-4 game between Clara and her cousin. The shot seems so thematically on-the-nose, the bright pastels that have defined characters through clothing now become pawns in a rigid game of reflexive decision-making. After she loses, Clara’s dismay that her cousin isn’t celebrating his victory also seems either forced or unnecessary, the sequence not really giving us any new information of note, but a visual distraction until the introduction of the remaining relatives. When those relatives arrive, cellist Hanna (Kathleen Morgeneyer) among them, Zürcher seems to lose his specific focus, and we quickly move through narrative beats that establish the upcoming recital and thereafter the surprisingly simple dinner sequence, which lacks a lot of the complexity of relationships on display up until that point.
Regardless of its slightly disappointing change of pace and information density as it reaches its end, The Strange Little Cat is an undoubtedly impressive debut feature film with a clearly defined worldview and some of the best animal choreography this side of Inside Llewyn Davis – the theory that the cat in each film is the same cannot be dismissed so easily.
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