Sundance 2023 Review: CAT PERSON Reassembles the Rape-Revenge Genre for Gen-Y
Susanna Fogel and Michelle Ashford adapt the viral short story into a dating thriller, wedged between ambiguous consent rules and a male persecution complex.
First published by The New Yorker in December 2017, Kristen Roupenian's short story Cat Person became a viral sensation. When news broke that it would be adapted for the big screen, curiosity arose: how could this subtle yet powerful story, revolving around dating-gone-wrong in the current climate of sexual and gender politics, be presented in an explicitly visual medium?
Booksmart co-writer and The Spy Who Dumped Me director, Susanna Fogel, joined forces with screenwriter Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex, Operation Mincemeat) to reenact the dynamics between Margot and Robert in a generous two-hour runtime.
The Fogel-Ashford team took on the source material beat by beat. And they continued to stack more on. The growth hormones that Ashford fed the source material bloated the story into a feature-length format but with a considerable toll. Or a benefit, depending upon viewers' expectations.
Emilia Jones (CODA ) stars as Margot, a self-deprecating student of archeology working part-time at a concession stand in a revival cinema. The first act invests a curious amount of time introducing Margot as a hard-working student carrying additional school work after-hours in addition to pulling shifts in the cinema.
The cast of characters is inflated on Margot's side. In addition to her socially-engaged roommate Taylor, one couple has a recurrent appearance in the beginning in throwaway scenes. The most memorable appearance is that of Isabella Rossellini as Margot's teacher, Dr. Enid Zabala, who steals the show for a brief moment.
The second act introduces Margot's family and her ex-boyfriend, only to leave them behind. Cat Person is mostly a two-hander, after all.
Fogel, and more importantly Ashford, faced tough choices, as was expected. The cinematic version suffers from a literal translation and unnecessary inflation. The short story opened a can of worms, especially in the ambiguity Roupenian's initial creation carried. The space for interpretation gets blurred in Fogel and Ashford's take, as the decision was made to take the source material much deeper into genre territory.
The dark satire and thriller element of Promising Young Woman encouraged steering socially-engaged genre filmmaking towards gender issues, giving feminism a chic makeover. As a film, Cat Person endeavors to ride this wave.
Roupenian proved to be, at heart, a genre writer; her debut collection of short stories, You Know You Want It, is composed of darkly comic, social horror tales of Gen Y's hook-up and date rape culture. Bodies Bodies Bodies, also adaptad from a short story by Roupenian, wears its genre affiliation on its sleeve. Cat Person does it more hesitantly.
Cat Person the movie redesigns the rape-revenge genre for the #MeToo era. Violence is more emotional and psychological than physical. While Margot has a moment when she appears to be an unreliable narrator, Fogel and Ashford depicts Robert (Nicholas Braun) as a cringe doofus who wears an incel on his forehead. Prejudices and suggestions fuel the antagonism, as does the big question of consent and how should it look to be bulletproof.
The sex that breaks the camel's back of Margot and Robert's burgeoning relationship is awkward as expected and be-done-as-soon-as-possible. But it's not as disturbing as some (male) directors have proven it could be.
Margot uses humor as a lifeline to stomach the performance. In the scene, her overly active imagination creates her doppelgangers, with whom she leads a conversation about the options in a sort of devil-and-angel-on-the-shoulder decision-making.
At that point, it is yet another fantasy scene that Ashford keeps overusing as a scare tactic and to portray Margot as a paranoiac. But this is the first time that it's not self-serving and gratuitous.
The big-screen Cat Person works much better in the position of a dark comedy than horror. Emilia Jones is perfect as a self-deprecating glossing on the hook-up culture and Gen Y's relationships. However, the scream queen act does not suit her. Nor the adaptation.
The creators push more and more for the conventional thriller halfway through the film at that climactic W-word milestone of the original story. Margot becomes increasingly more of a damsel in distress.
And while Ashford and Fogel saved some room for the benefit of the doubt on Robert's side, he becomes a full-blown psycho driven mad by the persecution complex of male victimization. Margot's supposed right to call him a rapist and ruin his life sends him into goblin mode.
Cat Person the movie lost the wit, timing, and gut-punch delivery of Cat Person the short story. The film works better if it's perceived through the lens of being Roupenian's IP, rather than as a rape-revenge reinterpretation for the current era. Even so, the third act is excruciating.
The film screened at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
- Susanna Fogel
- Michelle Ashford
- Kristen Roupenian
- Emilia Jones
- Hope Davis
- Nicholas Braun