Saturday, November 20, 2010

Cat People

Through suspenseful horror, Jacques Tourneur's Cat People grapples with mysogyny (and xenophobia, although I'm not really addressing that here). Cat People an alluring movie, not just because of the subject matter, but thanks to the memorable way Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca drape each frame in dense, impenetrable shadows. It is an absolutely stunning movie to look at. Amazingly, especially by today's standards, you really never even see the titular cat; its presence is merely implied by editing, reactions, and shadow. This decision (whether budget-influenced or not) lends a psychological, nightmarish quality to the film, making it unclear whether the cat truly exists, or whether it is just a projection of the subconscious, of the escalating fears of the characters.

Irena (Simone Simon), is a Serbian emigre, who falls in love with Oliver (Kent Smith), a gentle American man. As he accompanies Irena to her apartment one night, Oliver learns that her culture is haunted by lore suggesting that when a certain breed of woman becomes intimate with a man, she will turn into a large, predatory cat and kill him. Needless to say, her fear of this tale rather inhibits their relationship. Despite this, they become engaged, although they have exchanged nary a kiss. Irena's apartment is full of exotic oddities, including representations of panthers, as well as an odd figurine of a man on horseback. The latter is a replica of Prince John of Serbia, Christian smiter of evils. What interests me about this statue is both its phallic implications, and its consistent presence within the frame. Felines and femininity go together as well as do swords and masculinity. Both imply violence, but the feline implies a cunning, indirectness that the sword does not.

When Irena's fears become overwhelming, Oliver dismisses them as infantile fantasy, sending her to be psychoanalyzed, which simply seems to represent another patriarchal invasion into her soft, kittenish pysche. Rather than the relief the treatment is supposed to bring, it almost seems as if the psychoanalysis unhinges her fears to such a level that they become real, both to Irena, and to those around her.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and this is, inevitably, what truly brings out the beast in Irena. When Oliver turns to a female coworker for moral support, Irena's jealousy escalates to carnivorous proportions; the manifestations of her anger sexual frustration become something over which she has little control. As if in a predator's lucid dream, she stalks her husband's chosen confidante, Alice (Jane Randolph). Tourneur expertly constructs a sense of dread, while withholding any telling visuals. Due to the missing imagery, and to the expressionistic lighting, which casts a suffused halo around the action, the events become increasingly dream-like, a simultaneous hallucination of the viewer and the players on screen.

There is some bizarre Christian imagery that forms a startling contrast to Irena's exoticism, as represented by the still above. She is aligned with a more pagan tradition that opposes the Christianity of St. John. A matrix of dichotomies materializes with female/male aligned with pagan/Christian. Irena appears incredibly powerful in the still with the Egyptian statue; it is a mysterious, feminine kind of power that instills fear in the heart of man; the fear of the unknown; the fear that there is an inherent, undiscovered power in the feminine that might uproot civilized life as we know it. Still, this force does seem to succumb, at least momentarily, to images of the crucifix:

When Irena does transform, her only witness, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) is unable to tell the tale.

This movie is really about fear of a woman's essence, the mysterious darkness within, but the most troubling aspect is Irena's ensnarement between two fates. Once the seedy Dr. Judd has violated her enough to finally release the terrible animal inside her, she is too wounded to survive, and her purity has been compromised. The situation is untenable: suppressing her identity confines Irena to a life of jealousy and loneliness, while the opposite results in terrible violence.


  1. I probably saw this 7 or 8 years ago, but the scene where Irena follows Alice home is still quite vivid in my head. Suspense without the predictable payoff-- the dreamy surrealism, etc. They just don't make 'em like that, anymore.