The Strange Little Cat Dir. Ramon Zürcher

[Film Society of Lincoln Center; 2013]

Styles: minimalism, mundane surrealism
Others: The Seventh Continent, Amour

The minute details of an ordinary day take on a bizarre and momentous quality in Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat. Both in terms of running time and cinematic scope, Zürcher’s film resides somewhere between a feature and a short in the same way a novella falls between novel and short story. The plot is sparse: a middle-class Berlin family prepares for a dinner with relatives over the course of a single day. Most of the scenes occur in the kitchen of the family’s apartment, and even within that setting, much of the action goes offscreen, conveyed through a character’s look or gesture or by diegetic sound. Zürcher reveals little details about the members of this family: the oldest son and middle daughter, for instance, do not live at home full-time, but where they live and what they do remains unsaid.

Yet, these same characters offer narratives in miniature, shown in flashback, which provide a window to their existential positions: the daughter narrates an account of her walk through a park, during which she develops a fascination with how orange peels fall to the ground; the son tells of an experience with a drunken girl at a party — illuminated by an orange light and ash-faced she takes on a demonic appearance — yet the anecdote climaxes with him watching her leave the party while he remains. Rather than trying to delve the psyches of his characters, Zürcher focuses on instilling them with this kind of existential angst. He repeatedly lets the camera linger on a character while an action occurs offscreen, allowing the frame to become a kind of cage for both the subject and the audience. At the same time, no one in this family appears able to communicate: a character will ask a question and receive a completely different answer in response. The family remarks on the youngest daughter’s inability to spell, but again, there is a kind of paradox here as she is still able to convey her meaning to them.

The titular feline is neither strange nor even little by cat standards, though the family insists that both she and her canine companion are insane. Indeed, a more apt title may have been the strange little family, but this seems like an intentional move on Zürcher’s part. By drawing attention to the mundane qualities of the pets, a sense of quiet unease accumulates throughout the film. In classic minimalist fashion though, the family’s drama remains in the subtext. Is the mother going crazy? Is her husband having an affair with one of her female relatives? Is she attracted to her husband’s (presumably) brother? Is the grandmother dead? These questions linger by the end of the film. Ultimately, it is not so much the relationships among the characters that preoccupy the filmmaker, but their interaction with the world around them — another sort of paradox, when one considers the limited space of the film. In two transitional montages, the camera pans over the objects left lying around on tables and floors, evoking the idea of human consumption and waste. It is not so much that this family leaves its scraps and bits of rubbish lying around, but that we (or at least denizens of Western societies) condone this on a daily basis. To emphasize this point, Zürcher finds an ideal, perverse metaphor in a pile of vomit outside the doorstep of the family’s building. The image is conveyed first through words, then a shot from above, viewed from the family’s second story window, then at street level when the youngest daughter stoops down to clean it up, offering a potential glimpse of hope in the future.

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