The Gene Siskel Film Center is currently running their 17th Annual European Union Film Festival through the month of March. Please see their website for screenings and showtimes.
A household stirs in The Strange Little Cat. People talk, observe, and reminisce. Breakfast is had while a man comes to complete repairs on a washing machine. He brought his son with him, who is fascinated by the household’s animal politics. The matriarch discusses movie theater etiquette. Her daughter engages in a spiel about the aerodynamics of orange peel skins. A bottle spins. We watch. A dinner comes where extended family gather in a ritual that looks to have been passed down - with the prospect of it being passed down from one generation to the other. That might be all that happens in The Strange Little Cat. But what Ramon Zürcher’s amazing debut feature does is provide you with a very inviting, funny, and warm atmosphere that washes over you, possessing a peaceful calm so few films are able to achieve.
It would certainly not be easy to make a successful film of such calming effect and Zürcher complicates the visual and physical terrain with some witty contemplation on the nature of family and the difficulty of coping with new generations. With such exacting frames and gorgeous compositions, Zürcher suggests a pristine environment for his characters. And it was a suggestion that I certainly ascribed to during my viewing. But moving away from the picture, there are certainly ideas to the contrary - particularly events that resonated as jarring comic turns that might shed light on a more cynical tone that I picked up in spurts throughout. From a character slapping another to the isolation of a grandmother for most of the picture, there’s a dark undercurrent that swells below.
But on its simplest level, The Strange Little Cat is a technical wonder. Visually, there aren’t going to be many other films that have such a developed and assured sense of mise-en-scène. Every component of the visual space is defined with such accuracy and intent. There are particular images where Zürcher opts to target one central character over others who could be dominating the soundscape; it figures largely into the interpretative power of the camera and how Zürcher looks to gear his audience into ascribing to multiple worldviews throughout.
Accusations of film school pretentions that have been levied against the work and Zürcher himself are largely baseless. While it’s clear the director has condensed the visual acuity of a filmmaker like Jacques Tati with the patient camera of Yasujirō Ozu, adding in a dash of cryptic cynicism that might linger in a Michael Haneke picture, these stylistic flairs are largely benchmarks in a broader composition. In short, the influences do not dictate the naturalism of the film’s flow and intent.
As trite as it may sound, The Strange Little Cat is indeed a strange little film. But it’s the little suggestions that amount to powerful affect. The opening sequence, for example, features the titular animal open its mouth for a growl, only for Zürcher to utilize the wailing of a child for audial effect. That child wails more than once, diplomatically dispatched at unusual moments. There’s a steady momentum that the picture develops, where its casualness gives way to oddity, only for the whole picture to come together as a sort of testament to the strangeness of life.