THE STRANGE LITTLE CAT
Directed by Ramon Zürcher
Running time: 72 minutes
Here we have a grimy ballet. Tennis shoes adhere to a crummy floor. A leg is lifted and foot hesitates, settling over a tender spot with Dionysean caprice. An arm lunges forward in search of a dish. A switch is flipped and a burr grinder roars. One head plunges while another surges. The cat darts and a glass rolls off the table’s edge – no Sterling Hayden to catch it. The space hemmed in by table and counter balloons with flesh. The cupboard door hatches a plan: Bend, grab, slip, lift, brush. That no dancer has yet to take a spill is a minor miracle. It’s that sloppy clockwork we call organic. It’s Jacques Tati’s casual comedic precision. It’s Edward Yang’s morbid chaos of kith and kin. It’s a static lens focused on domestic detritus, stationed somewhere between Chantal Akerman and Yasujirō Ozu.
THE STRANGE LITTLE CAT is the debut feature of Ramon Zürcher, and what an ingenious, rewarding feature it is. For the continental philosopher Alain Badiou, “cinema is a thinking whose products are the Real.” This means that movies are capable of sparking, considering and speaking ideas into the realm of discourses that shape our lives. But what thought is tonight’s film thinking? On the one hand, it takes the question of “what is the other thinking?” as its subject. Zürcher’s characters prod, ruffle and provoke each other as if to chart the psychic contours that delineate personhood. Our cartographers show a particular preference for scrutinizing structural weakness: vulnerabilities, sensitivities and breaking points. The housecat’s underbelly, in one of many instances of petty sadism, is threatened underfoot an ultimately merciful shoe. Touch, in this film, is at once threatening and affectionate. Its primary effect is to petrify the beings in its hold.
But this film’s thinking resounds in its formal composition. CinemaScope critic Michael Sicinski likened it to a work of chamber music. There are image cycles that mimic rondo forms, cramped movement allegros and digressive-anecdotal adaggios. I’m reminded again of Ozu, for whom these forms also played a prominent role. His rondos consisted of “pillow shots,” in which the camera cuts away from the dramatic action to focus on a wider scene (usually free from human activity). They typically imbue an august serenity, positioning the troubles of some wayward family in the context of a larger whole. It’s that transcendent, Pale Blue Dot feeling. And if transcendence is a pillow, then (and please forgive the wordplay) Zürcher’s rondos employ something more like “brillo shots.” He gives us perspective on the action not by rising above it, but by diving into it, examining its byproduct. Glasses, bottles, orange peels and crumbs. Each voiced some tertiary role in the play and was discarded. This is not the impermanence of all things, this is the persistence of forgotten things. People come and go and our symptoms remain. With these moves, Zürcher offers us an epistemological model of reality that is disharmonious and estranged. Perhaps this is the breaking point, a worldview from which change becomes possible again. If we touch the cosmic dance with our minds, let us not be petrified by its magnificence.
The Strange Little Cat has done a tour of more than two dozen of the world’s most prestigious fests, including Cannes, Toronto, Vienna and now AFI FEST. It’s rare to find a young filmmaker with such a distinct, mature voice, and even rarer to stumble upon a film that so generously rewards post-screening discussions and multiple viewings. It’s a small gem, a film that tells a familiar story in a genuinely new way.”
~~ Darren Hughes, Long Pauses
The Strange Little Cat develops its own means of bending perceptions of time and space. The title offers a clue as to why the actions of this apartment’s residents can seem disjointed or contradictory: This may very well be how the daily rituals of humans seem from a feline perspective. Zürcher’s ingenious debut feature suggests what Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) might’ve been like if Jacques Tati had got around to making it first.”
~~ Jason Anderson, ArtForum
“Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat is another small miracle, a compressed, oblique, peculiarly funny and beguiling exploration of shared space. …In his feature debut, Zürcher displays a limpid sensory approach (the rattle of appliances is as much a compositional element as the sun emanating from a window) that’s been justly compared to Jacques Tati’s, though the tight planar arrangements often seem closer to mid-1970s Chantal Akerman. People come and go within these fixed, slightly off-center frames, bits of eccentricity become running gags, and every cut is a droll new visual opening. The Strange Little Cat can feel like a whirring toy, a screen brimming with pointillist delights, and then one look at the subtle yet lingering grief on the mother’s drawn face and the playful surfaces suddenly pulse with melancholy, even ominous undercurrents. It’s a miniature that grows larger and more secretive, tenser and more flowing the more you gaze into it.”
~~ Fernando F. Croce, MUBI
“If we were to return to the metaphor of considering Zürcher’s film as a work of chamber music, these image-cycles are rondo forms, in contrast to the cramped-movement allegros and the digressive-anecdotal adagios. And as the film evolves, we begin to see that Clara may be something very close to Cat’s governing consciousness, a girl who sees much more than she is seen. (One of the most striking of the non-narrative passages is the one comprised of Clara’s crayon drawings, which show that the girl, too, finds this home odd.) But unlike her older relatives, she possesses no wry detachment; like a little phenomenologist (or a cat), Clara investigates by moving ‘to the things themselves.’”
~~ Michael Sicinsky, CinemaScope
“The movie could just as easily be stripped of all concern for ideas and taken for what it also is: A pure, visceral ballet of life as a futile attempt to establish order. In fact, a filmmaker that often comes to mind while watching Zürcher’s film (other than Jacques Tati) is Lucrecia Martel, whose own debut, La Ciénaga is a spiritual cousin to the one in this film, both expertly depicting families in a simultaneous mode of repellence and love toward one another.”
~~ Blake Williams, IONCINEMA
“It’s perhaps the most purely beguiling movie at this year’s festival—the rare film that offers a new way of looking at the everyday world. Zürcher’s sensibility has been compared to that of Jacques Tati, with whom he shares a puckish sense of humor predicated on small bits of business that expand into running gags. But his asymmetrical compositions and discordant juxtapositions, which employ visual and aural misdirection to make the familiar seem fresh and wondrous, are entirely his own.”
~~ Mike D’Angelo, The Dissolve