"When it's right, it'll happen. It'll be magical."—Irena (Nastassja Kinski)
From the first moments, saturated in crimson and turquoise, we seem to move through a dream. Irena (Nastassja Kinski), with wide eyes and gamine hair, arrives in New Orleans to meet her brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell) for the first time. She is a woman-child in a strange world, a mythic landscape seething with sexual tension. Her brother certainly feels it and revels in a daze of perverse sexual violence, seducing and consuming women with animal ferocity—literally. But Irena, smitten with a charming zookeeper (John Heard), refuses to embrace her destiny: the curse of the Cat People.
Some months ago, we took time out in two Deep Focus columns to examine the work of Paul Schrader. I will give you a minute to catch up. Back and ready to move along? Good. In short, Paul Schrader's work almost exclusively deals with the complexities of masculine identity. I say "almost." Cat People is the one exception to date: an exploration of feminine identity and sexual politics. The entire film largely feels like an experiment on Schrader's part. The film marked the first time Schrader worked with a script he did not write (in this case, by Alan Ormsby, although Schrader admits he tinkered with it, especially the ending). It was his first "genre" film (he later tossed off a b-movie parody, Witch Hunt, for cable and might direct the next Exorcist film). And the film offered an opportunity to aggressively pursue his visual aesthetic, which came to fruition in the stunning Mishima.
But most importantly, Cat People is Schrader's first and only film focusing on the experience of women. That is not to say that Schrader offers the same level of psychological depth that he finds in male protagonists like Jake LaMotta or Wade Whitehouse; he admits up front that Cat People is stylized, a myth, and not realistic. Far more crucial to this film than the script is the design. Every scene is awash in color, particularly turquoise and jade—and splashes of red thrown across the frame. This is a horror film fueled by atmospherics, and Schrader lays it on thick. Looming statues, shadowy lighting, the lush electronic score by Giorgio Moroder: Cat People is almost tactile. It is all in the service of eroticizing the violence to the point where the film operates more as a psychosexual exploration than a horror film. Indeed, Schrader occasionally gets heavy-handed in his attempts to push romanticism in the face of the audience, throwing in offhand references to La Vita Nuova, installing a whorehouse at the corner of Annunciation and Erato (religion and poetry, get it?), having a "wise woman" character dubbed Femalé, and generally showing off.
To be fair, Cat People is meant to be showy. In fact, the real genius behind the film's atmosphere is not Schrader but "visual consultant" Ferdinando Scarfiotti. Schrader freely and repeatedly credits Scarfiotti with most of the aesthetic decisions on the film, and even admits to modeling his own directing style in the film on Scarfiotti's frequent collaborator, Bernardo Bertolucci (for whom Scarfiotti snared an Oscar for The Last Emperor's art design). New Orleans under Scarfiotti's brush feels as thick as a roux, and at times, even the performers seem lost in the mist and music and color layered over to give the film its erotic look.
Although eroticism here is clearly directed toward its tactile qualities, Cat People is, often enough, a sexy film. Nastassja Kinski is acceptably vulnerable as Irena, playing carefully with the character's sexual ambiguity. Boyish looking, virginal, Irena is unsure of her identity. Malcolm McDowell gives brother Paul much the same seductively dangerous quality as Alec from A Clockwork Orange: Paul is a decidedly sexy beast.
Of course, that is the big joke of the plot. Borrowing the premise of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's 1942 masterpiece, Alan Ormsby's script invents a myth: Irena and Paul are members of a cursed race who become murderous animals when they have sex with anyone other than their own. Can you smell Freud and Jung all over this premise? The theme of dangerous sexuality is of course stock in trade for both the horror film genre and the social status of erotica, especially with regard to the portrayal of women. Ormsby's script succeeds when it remains in what Paul Schrader refers to in his commentary track as the "perverse romantic genre," focusing on Irena's reactions to the sexual temptations from both the good-boy Oliver and the bad-boy Paul. Schrader seems most at home with these parts of the film, perhaps because the theme is so common in his other films, albeit always from a male perspective. But that is a discussion for another time.
Where the script falters is in its attempt to yoke Irena's traumatic journey toward sexual awakening (which, in typical Schrader fashion, we know will end in irony and ambivalence) in an overly complicated plot. Each act holds up fine, but the transitions between acts are disjointed and awkward. Worse still, the story violates its own stated rules about the Cat People, when Paul transforms (without having sex first) simply to provide a threat to close out the second act. From that point on, the film seems to meander, jumping to an awkward exposition scene (Paul explains the whole backstory in a dream), and Irena starts to behave inconsistently from scene to scene, the script shifting to the perspective of the other characters rather than showing us what she is thinking or feeling (which was the main strategy in the first two acts). It is better than Ormsby's script for Porky's II, but it still is not up to Schrader's level of writing. Given Schrader's own marvelous screenplays, I am surprised that he did not see the problems with this script. Or perhaps he did, and figured the film would provide a studio-financed excuse to develop his visual style, a stepping stone to better things.
Perhaps that explains why he remarks in his commentary track that his real interest in the film is its "visual aesthetics." He talks much less about the story (although he judiciously hints at the story problems) than the design elements throughout. He repeats this theme in a 25-minute interview called "Cat People: An Intimate Portrait," stressing the work of Scarfiotti and other collaborators. In one of his rare personal moments though, Schrader does admit that the film offered a chance to confront his own fear of women (evident in so many of the protagonists in his own screenplays). A 10-minute interview with Schrader, conducted on set during the filming of Cat People, focuses on the "mythic" aspects of the story. Schrader begs off on the implications of the incest theme (saying it is merely a plot point—is somebody in denial?). The interviewer refers to a parallel interview segment done with Nastassja Kinski, but Universal does not include that on this disc.
There are plenty of other extras though. Tom Burman discusses the makeup effects, candidly admitting which ones worked and which ones did not. There are two photo galleries, one focusing on Albert Whitlock's matte paintings and the other on the actors and Schrader's directing. The most unusual supplement is a brief (3 minute) interview with Robert Wise, the director of the underrated fairy-tale sequel, Curse of the Cat People, offered as a tribute to Val Lewton. The film itself looks gorgeous, presented in an anamorphic transfer that shows off its rich color palette. The only disappointment is the soundtrack, a rather muted 2.0 affair that has a few pops and lacks intensity.
As a purely aesthetic experience, Paul Schrader's paean to "love, eros, and animals" (in his words) holds up pretty well. It is not particularly scary, and its sexual content is a little overstylized to be very erotic, but its sense of atmosphere is strong and the art design looks great. For fans of Schrader's work, this film marks an important transition in his visual style as a director, although he might have done better to expend some of his talents on the script as well. His next film, Mishima, would showcase all his skills as a director and screenwriter to their full extent. Cat People is certainly worth a look, however, and Universal has done a solid job with this disc.
Director Paul Schrader is released, but this court warns him to be careful about directing films he did not write. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track by Paul Schrader
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