In 2017, the short story Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian became an overnight sensation. Its viscerally authentic portrayal of the trials and tribulations of modern dating struck a chord with many of its readers, who recognised the complications and red flags that it showcased. A film version was inevitable after such a successful first run. Sadly, this adaptation struggles to capture the same effect. It has its moments, but the runtime and creative choices will leave many scratching their heads in confusion instead of compelled.
Emilia Jones stars in her first film role since the pleasant surprise hit that was CODA. She plays Margot, a 20-year-old student who works part time at an arthouse cinema. During a shift, she is asked out by Robert (Nicholas Braun), a regular customer who is a little older than her. They exchange text messages and things seem to be going well, but his shy, somewhat distant, demeanour in person leaves Margot feeling uncomfortable. As she wrestles with whether or not to break up with him, things just seem to get creepier.
The film opens with a now infamous quote from author Margaret Atwood – “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” It sets the tone right away, and the craftsmanship follows suit. Margot frequently fantasises about how quickly her seemingly innocent interactions with Robert could go south. They are graphic and disturbing, but even when she tries to play along with the blossoming relationship, she can’t help but have these thoughts. The dark lighting of the film’s winter setting is pronounced throughout, whether inside the bleak university dorm rooms or the desolate streets, hinting at the uneasy what ifs that plague Margot’s mind.
Robert’s actions do him no favours, for he comes across, at the very least, as incredibly needy. He texts too frequently, seems to think sex and porn are the same thing, and bases his idea of romance on problematic moments in Harrison Ford movies like The Last Crusade and Blade Runner. It’s hard to tell whether his awkwardness is benign or malicious, which makes it quite an uncomfortable performance – a credit to Nicholas Braun’s efforts. Emilia Jones is similarly strong, having to play a role that’s essentially caught between a rock and a hard place. Margot does desire a relationship, but she cannot ignore the oddities in Robert’s behaviour that turn her away from him even as he fawns over her. Jones captures the anxiety and contradictions of such a headspace very well.
It’s just a pity that the film itself is rather muddled in execution. Despite the very real topics of male violence, dating anxiety, and the ambiguous heterotopias that exist within male and female dynamics, there is a theatricality to the film’s presentation that cheapens the themes it wishes to explore. Its symbolism, such as a faded out Fatal Attraction poster in the cinema Margot works at, feels very heavy handed, while its larger points on solidarity and the trouble with modern connection are delivered in the form of spiteful declarations by Margot’s best friend Taylor (Geraldine Viswanathan), an insufferable character whose self-righteousness was so grating it bordered on parody. Just as these strident elements are highlighted, so too is the awkwardness that underscore all of Margot and Robert’s interactions. This may be the point, but it is emphasised so much that much of its authenticity feels dramaticised. Where moments such as their first kiss or their first time having sex are uncomfortably captivating in their cringe factor, others like the fanciful therapy sessions devalue the content. It’s a script so determined to make its point known that the chilling relatability of its source material is lost in translation.
Roupenian’s short story ended with an ominous string of texts from the character Robert represents, showcasing a shocking display of damaged egos and male entitlement at its worst. The scene that replicates this moment is one of the film’s best. The music, lighting and usage of a long dolly zoom all enhance the sinister overtones of this interaction marvellously. Yet the film carries on for an additional thirty to forty minutes following this, resulting in an ending that ultimately blurs the film’s aims. While it exists to hint at the uncertainty of the central dynamic between Margot and Robert, it ends up somewhat reversing the power dynamics of what came before, a choice that feels nonsensical, even counterproductive to what it is trying to sell. It results in a product that suffers from poor pacing and counter-intuitive delivery, taking any potential nuances down with it.
Cat Person had the potential to be a gripping, timely story, and in some ways it is. One of the biggest sins audiovisual storytelling has ever committed is convincing swathes of men that if they pine after a crush long enough they’ll eventually be rewarded with said crush’s affection. But there is a manufactured feel to the craftsmanship that undermines the otherwise rich layers to its themes. Despite good performances and some well directed scenes, its observations on the grey areas and uncertainty of relationships feel lacking in sensitivity and abundant in melodrama. Given the contemporary seriousness of its themes, that makes this disappointment an especially bitter one.
Cat Person is in cinemas October 27th
Director: Susanna Fogel
Writer: Michelle Ashford (Based on Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian)
Stars: Emilia Jones, Nicholas Braun, Geraldine Viswanathan
Country: United States and France
Runtime: 120 minutes