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Cat People

Paul Schrader, 1982 | Jacques Tourneur, 1942

FROM ‘MARA, MARIETTA’
Part Three Chapter 6

̶  This is Aravane.

Dark the tapered arc of the eyebrow descends to the tip of the cat’s ear; on each face—one eye deep in shadow, the other in a flare of light—the same unyielding stare.

̶  What presence!

Falling in a curtain to one side of her head, her hair crops the photo, bringing the faces forward and emphasizing the similarity of the eyes.

̶  And she’s just like that in person—relaxed, yet very intense.
̶  Did you spend much time together?
̶  Two hours. They went by in a flash!

Sitting opposite each other, lotus-like on the bed, we contemplate the woman you’re renting this apartment from.

̶  I can’t get over this photo, Sprague. It’s mesmerizing!
̶  Yes. There’s definitely something about it. It’s got rhythm, drama, tension.
̶  Yet a profound sense of peace. It’s uncanny!

Nastassja Kinski.

̶  The cat is clearly tuned in to Aravane’s vibes.
̶  Unless it’s the other way around!

Simone Simon.

̶  Held back, yet penetrating—you’re right, that look is more feline than human.
̶  But face-to-face she’s no different!

Cat People.

̶  Do you like cats, Sprague?
̶  Yes, very much. And you?

Slung over her shoulders like a pelisse, the feline djinni inhabits Aravane’s gaze.

̶  I’d like to like them, but they give me the creeps!
̶  All cats?
̶  Yes, just about.

Exhibition on Claude Cahun: Jeu de Paume

See especially the excellent video, in French with English subtitles.

Imp of darkness, emblem of sin, hide yourself away on my wedding day: What is it about cats that gets to you? I’d have thought you’d see in cats’ eyes an image of your own independence; I’d have thought you’d see not an enemy of the sun or grimalkin but a cunning creature of forethought and ingenuity: One with whom you could identify.

̶  Pass it to me. I’ll put it back.

Unfolding your legs, you slide off the bed and walk to the far wall. On its stand on the console you place the photograph. Naked, seen from behind, your body is an hourglass that gives a stickiness to time: Suspended in the trickling sand, I hesitate between dream and reality. Was it just a moment ago you kissed my lips? Was it just a moment ago you straddled my hips, alternating wide circular movements with deep ones up and down? Through layered light you come back to me; dreamily your body affirms my sense of reality. Now plunge me into the heart of existence, stand up for contingence! Nine lives has the cat: Aravane demonstrates that.

ON PAUL SCHRADER’S (1982) AND JACQUES TOURNEUR’S (1942) CAT PEOPLE

By Richard Jonathan

‘Sexuality does not walk a straight line. Opaque, obscure, hesitant, it makes its way among words and images, obliquely. It is always perverse, taking detours, stumbling and staggering along.’ (Michel Schneider, Lacan, les années fauves [Paris: PUF, 2010] p. 215. My translation.)

The heroine of Cat People takes quite a detour: Whenever she submits to her desire she becomes a destructive black panther. In the 1942 film, this serves as a vivid metaphor for sexual repression, the heroine’s fear of her own desire. A poster advertising the film makes things explicit: ‘She knew strange, fierce pleasures that no other woman could ever feel’. The film itself couldn’t afford to be so clear: Tourneur’s suggestive subtext is overlaid with a surface of obfuscating folklore. As for the love story, it has none of the subversiveness of the film noir love stories of the time, and ends with the heroine not submitting to her desire, but sacrificing it to become a good citizen. A ‘happy ending’, of sorts, that Tourneur’s cinematography manages somewhat to subvert.

Nastassia Kinksi as Irena

Simone Simon as Irena

Forty years later, Paul Schrader, wanting to take a break from the throes of personal filmmaking, did a remake of Cat People—and ended up making his most personal film. (Desire, indeed, takes circuitous routes.) Throwing out the conventional ending of the script (which had the monster killed and the house burned down), he instead had the hero make love to the monster and ‘put her in a shrine and live with her’. While a far more interesting ending than the one in the screenplay, it nevertheless constitutes, in my view, a failure of nerve.

Indeed, keeping the black panther in a cage, defanging desire, is—while the ‘normal’ fate of a marriage—hardly a sign of courage for such a young couple. The ‘perversity’ that Schrader laments (and blames on his obsession with Nastassia Kinksi) is in fact the most stimulating aspect of the movie. As in the 1942 film, the folklore, here spiced up with incest, is a red herring to take the audience off the scent of their own perversity. That scent is strongest in the bondage scene, a scene that Schrader considered to be going ‘a little too far’. In fact, it did not go far enough: How refreshing it would have been to not merely acknowledge the complexity of desire, but to pay homage to it.

Then again, Schrader, an intelligent and literate director, is interesting even in his failure (of nerve). He succeeds, for example, in giving a fresh twist to courtly love by mixing it, in the person of his hero, with misanthropy.

Still, cinema induces dream, the images speak in and of themselves, and the black panther is too strong a token of desire to be locked in any sublimation: In the green of Nastassia Kinski’s eyes, I see the film that might have been.

The quotations from and allusions to Paul Schrader’s reflections on his film are from an interview with him in Schrader on Schrader & Other Writings, ed. Kevin Jackson (London: Faber and Faber, 1990) pp. 166-67.