Cat People has been on my 31 Days list every year for the past 7 years. Better late than never!
Irena is absorbed in her sketchbook at the zoo when she meets neat and tidy and well-behaved Oliver Reed, who teases her when her frustrated, crumpled-up drawings don’t quite make it into the trash bin. They chat and leave together, and as they stroll away, we catch a glimpse at what she’s been doodling: a sleek panther with a dagger plunged through its heart.
Oliver walks Irina home to her fabulously beautiful apartment, and she asks him in for tea. During this sort-of-first-date, as Oliver is meandering about her space, he seems particularly struck–and a mite disturbed by–a certain statue, and Irina explains. In her village in Serbia, there was the belief that it sheltered satanic cultists who could take the form of cats.
Good King John tried to kill these cat people, but some fled into the mountains, where they are said to live to this day. We soon learn that Irena secretly fears she is one of those cat people.
In the way of cinematic whirlwind romances, Oliver and Irina declare their love for each other and are married and living together within the next five minutes of screen time. It’s very clear right from the start that this relationship will be tested because Irina, uncomfortable with physical affection, dreads getting close to Oliver. Forget about consummating the marriage–she won’t even kiss him. She is terrified that once her passions are aroused, she will transform into a panther and kill and eat her husband
Oliver promises patience and time, but when his long-time coworker, the very swell and pretty Alice, confesses her love for him, Oliver is not so supportive anymore.
As Irena’s fear and jealousy grow, she begins to stalk Alice; there is a genuinely creepy scene in which Alice is hiding in a swimming pool while something prowls and growls from the shadows. Has Irena metamorphosed? Is it Alice’s heightened terror and imagination? Things eventually escalate, there is an attack, and things don’t end well for precisely the person that they wouldn’t have a hope of ending well for, considering the era during which this film was made.
Cat People was a gorgeous movie with all its atmospheric cinematography and wonderful cat motifs, but I think what I felt more than anything from it was a deep melancholy and loneliness.
Irena says at one point, when she is attempting to explain her apprehension about the intimate nature of marriage: “I’ve lived in dread of this moment. I’ve never wanted to love you. I’ve stayed away from people … I’ve fled from the past. Some things you could never know, or understand — evil things.” She reflects to Oliver, in a later scene, “You’re the only friend I’ve ever had.”
An immigrant, an outsider, a possibly cursed individual, a cat person who cats apparently don’t even like, whose only friend is that fickle fucker of a husband–Irina’s story is impossibly sad.
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