The Strange Little Cat (Amazon), the debut feature by Swiss writer/director Ramon Zürcher, reminded me at times of the creative writing classes I took in high school and college. I’d always try to surprise or provoke my teachers and professors with surreal situations and details that I patted myself on the back for being so very random and out there, only to generally get a favorable response, which I would take as a sign of failure. I assume Zürcher’s intentions were less sophomoric than mine, but it came to mind because, with a movie like The Strange Little Cat, its real subject is the response it inspires in those watching it.
This plotless movie unfolds over the course of a day, entirely within the walls of an ordinary-seeming home where a family – mom, dad, a college-age son and daughter, a younger daughter, a grandmother, various aunts and uncles and the titular feline – go about everyday tasks and prepare for a dinner party. Much of the action is deliberately mundane, though from the beginning, Zürcher interrupts their routines with strange, jarring details, like the way the youngest daughter screams every time her mom turns on the blender. These peculiar character tics accumulate throughout the movie, as well as details, like a bottle that won’t stop spinning, that create a reality that is recognizable and yet subtly not our own.
The Strange Little Cat has been compared to Béla Tarr, Jacques Tati and Franz Kafka by critics (and by the back of the DVD), and I can especially see the Tati comparison, as Zürcher has a similar knack for creating precisely choreographed routines out of mundane activities. I also thought of Roman Polanski, as Zürcher often creates tension in a scene by framing the image in a way that obscures our view of faces or key details. Harold Pinter came to mind as well; The Strange Little Cat has some of the sense of mounting dread of The Birthday Party or The Homecoming, creating a growing anxiety that these little signifiers of weirdness are accumulating into something menacing.
With Pinter, though, the anxieties usually pay off in some sort of climax, even if we can’t explain it; in The Strange Little Cat, the many simmering tensions under the movie’s surface never boil over. For instance, there are many references in the movie to the grandmother, who is always resting in a room that we don’t see. If Grandma had been revealed to be a Shoggoth or a giant tarantula, I wouldn’t have been completely surprised. But no, when we eventually see Grandma, she’s just a normal Grandma who quickly returns to her room for another nap.
That’s maybe the central joke of the film – that under our routines and repetition, that nagging sense of nonspecific anxiety that some of us experience never pays off, at least not in a way that we’ll understand. That’s probably me projecting my own experience onto the movie, though, just as other critics have labelled it a story about alienation or the desolation of the family unit. I guess one could find those things in there, but mostly I responded to the The Strange Little Cat’s constant low-key surrealism for its own sake. It takes a certain kind of artist to make a movie that would be too alienatingly strange for most audiences, but it takes a whole other level of confidence to make a movie sure enough of itself to keep its weirdness on a low boil.