The August 26 release Nine Lives features Kevin Spacey as a smug billionaire who gets trapped inside the body of a fluffy cat. Barry Sonnenfeld’s comedy has been clawed to bits in the United States and the United Kingdom. One of the grouses is that the movie cynically tries to cash in on the cult of online cat videos. You know the ones – they feature felines being their usual haughty, self-centred and irresistible selves.
Much before the internet, these icons of inscrutability have featured in small and significant ways in early filmmaking experiments (inventor Thomas Edison made two cats wear gloves and box as early as 1894), short films, full-length features, documentaries and animated productions. They have purred in the background, provided joy and terror to humans, and acted as loyal companions despite their seeming indifference. Dogs are preferred in the movies because they are easier to train, but it’s the ability of cats to be difficult and individualistic that makes them so much more interesting – and alluring.
Cat People (1942) Jacques Torneur’s horror film doesn’t have the full-blown erotic charge of Paul Schrader’s 1982 reworking, but it’s a very effective yarn of a woman who has descended from a race of werecats and is terrified that she will turn into a panther if she has sex. Irena, beautifully performed by Simone Simon, is a Serbian fashion designer who is strangely attracted to the yowling of the neighbouring zoo’s black panther. Statements such as “I like the dark, it’s friendly,” prove to be portentous of Irena’s discovery of her feline self. This beautifully shot allegory of female sexuality is more suggestive than explicit, with the fearsome creature that Irena becomes depicted in delicate silhouette. Schrader’s version lets the erotic out of the bag as Nastassja Kinski fights off her amorous brother, who insists that having sex with him will end his bloodlust for killing humans, and submits to repeated close-ups of her tremulous lips and nude body.
The Private Life of Cats (1947) This gorgeous silent film about a domesticated cat couple was made by experimental filmmaker Alexander Hammid along with his wife, the celebrated avant garde artist Maya Deren, during the last year of their marriage. Described as an early reality video that features a cat giving birth, the film throws up surprising parallels between the feline and human worlds. As the mother grooms her young and teaches them to make their way around the apartment, the father watches in shock. He tries to grab his partner’s attention, but she is now otherwise occupied. If she could speak, she would have a thing or two to say about responsible parenting. Point-of-view shots reveal the world as the cats see it, while the observational camerawork yields rich dividends as the creatures go about their business, seemingly oblivious to the humans filming them.
When the Cat Comes (1963) This Czech curio by Vojtech Jasný (also titled The Cassandra Cat) is set in a small town that is transformed when a travelling circus marches in. A trapeze artist in a red suit initially catches the fancy of the town’s men. But jaws drop, and the movie momentarily stops, when Mokol, a striped cat with white-framed sunglasses, enters the frame. When Mokol’s glasses are shed, the townspeople see themselves as they really are. Soon enough, a witch hunt begins to kill the mute creature that articulates the unspeakable. This absurdist fable pokes fun at the willingness of a society to shield itself from the obvious.
Harry and Tonto (1974) Paul Mazursky’s moving study of aging features an Oscar-winning performance by Art Carney and an equally estimable turn by the orange tabby cat that is his closest friend. Forced to leave his decrepit building after it is condemned by civic authorities, Harry (Carney) sets out on a trip with his pet cat Tonto (played by different but identical felines). Tonto proves to be a sturdy companion, amiably tolerating Harry’s monologues and offering himself up for neck rubs and back scratches to the travellers whom Harry encounters.
‘Batman Returns’ (1992) Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is the best thing about Tim Burton’s second adaptation of the Batman comic books. Batman Returns (1992), the sequel to Batman (1989), introduces Selina Kyle (Pfeiffer), a lonely and scatterbrain secretary who is killed by her evil boss Max Schrek (Christopher Walken), only to be revived by alley cats and transformed into a leather-wearing anarchist. Bruce Wayne and his alter ego Batman (Michael Keaton) are unsurprisingly intrigued by the woman who declares that “Life is a bitch and so am I.” Pfeiffer has immense fun licking her catsuit and purring away.
Take Care of My Cat (2001) An adopted stray becomes a symbol of trust between school friends in Jeong Ja-un’s winning coming-of-age drama. Of the five friends, Hae-joo is the most ambitious, slaving away at a stockbroker’s firm in order to make a new life for herself. Her bond with the moody and soulful Ji-young is shattered when she rejects Ji-young’s offer of a stray kitten as a birthday present. Who does that anyway?
‘Bolt’ (2008) Disney’s array of anthropomorphised animals ranges from the endearing to the annoying. The sleek felines from The Aristocrats usually top the list of animated cats, but here’s a shout-out to the wry and wise Mittens from Bolt. Directed by Chris Williams and Bryon Howard, Bolt is about the titular dog (voiced by John Travolta) who has spent his life as a fictional character in a television series and has come to believe that he has superpowers. Separated from the show’s lead actress Penny (voiced by Miley Cyrus), Bolt sets out to find her with Mittens (voiced by Susie Essman) and a hamster (voiced by Mark Walton) for company. Mittens coolly demolishes the truth about cats and dogs – they actually get along just fine, especially when it’s acknowledged that the cat is the smarter of the two.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) Low on the usual irony that marks the films of the Coen brothers, Inside LLewyn Davis is a 1960s-set portrait of a struggling folk musician. The self-pitying and morose Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) has very little money and zero inspiration (his partner has killed himself). To make things worse, he locks himself and the Gorfeins’ orange tabby cat Ulysses after availing of their hospitality and must now transport himself and the petulant creature across auditions and fractious meetings with his pregnant ex-girlfriend. Ulysses (performed by three different cats) keeps getting lost and found as Llewyn schleps through the harsh snow in search of money, recognition, and peace.
The Strange Little Cat (2013) Ramon Zurcher’s beguiling debut arthouse feature depicts the life of a family in Berlin as a higgledy-piggledy jigsaw puzzle. The German film plays out in an apartment that houses various immediate and extended members of a family and their pets. Zurcher explores the spatial relationships between the characters through unusual camera compositions and dialogue that is spoken off the screen. This formally rigorous family space includes a dog, but the untrained cat (real name Kasimir) steals the show by being as oblivious to the absence of a plot as everybody else in the movie.