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As Get Out proved with such haunting precision back in 2017, cinematic horror tropes can offer an effective means of unearthing the disturbing quotidian realities of oppression. But, also starting life in 2017 – as a short story in The New Yorker – Cat Person unfortunately proves that generic conventions can undermine attempts to tell stories about power and identity, too.
The film follows the burgeoning relationship between twenty-year-old college student Margot, and Robert, a man in his early thirties who frequents the cinema where she works. The pair flirt via text and eventually go on an excruciating date that explores the shifting dynamics between them. As in Kristen Roupenian’s original story, the film privileges Margot’s perspective, and her everyday fears about male violence surface in imagined scenes of physical conflict that interrupt the narrative flow. Jump scares abound in her daily life as a university professor grabs her shoulder from off-screen (in an underwhelming appearance by Isabella Rossellini), and her friends burst unexpectedly through a door.
Up to a point, Cat Person’s evocation of horror works well; in the spaces between the streetlights on Margot’s journey home from work, the film illuminates the all-too familiar fears that women experience when they date new men. Externalising Margot’s interior dialogues with herself by way of a doubling device on screen, Cat Person also lays bare the complex politics of informed consent in sexual encounters.
However, its treatment of the women around Margot makes a mockery of the security blankets that they use to protect themselves from patriarchy. Her mother’s desperation to appear younger (an interesting, if underexplored, counterpoint to Margot’s desire to seem older) and her roommate Taylor’s obsessive interest in social justice are punchlines to a joke that doesn’t land. It’s a shame, because 2019’s Booksmart (on which Cat Person’s director Susanna Fogel was a co-writer) always laughed with, never at, the two teenage girl protagonists.
Cat Person just never quite adds up to the sum of its parts. Something of the source material’s blunt delivery remains in the film’s on-the-nose aesthetic. However, all nuance is lost, with a Margaret Atwood quote over the opening scene being a case in point. That Robert is a monster is accepted from the outset merely because he is an older man. The ending, which eschews the short story’s unflinching account of everyday sexual violence in all its mundanity, prioritises visual dramatics over character development.
With a score reminiscent of a theme-park haunted house attraction, sound design that lazily approximates dramatic tension by using iPhone keyboard clicks, and high-school play performances, Cat Person falls short of expectations. It’s a messy adaptation that never commits to its central argument and does a disservice to the younger audience that it’s striving to reach. It’s as if the filmmakers have done all the background reading, but in the gimmicky work they’ve turned in, spectacularly missed the point.
► Cat Person is in UK cinemas on 27 October.