Ramon Zürcher’s student project turned festival darling debut is an odd, wholly original work that bears little resemblance to anything of recent memory. Essentially a non-narrative dinner party film about the physical beauty of our relationships with the spaces, beings and objects that make up the environments of our daily lives, Zürcher’s melancholic ballet of apartment maneuvering is strangely mesmerizing. Children are children, teens are teens, animals act as they will, objects are animated by those around, and parents reflect, fearing the years are slipping away, leading the old into the darkness and the young to pessimistic enlightenment. Born from a film school workshop presided over by slow cinema legend Béla Tarr and inspired by Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”, The Strange Little Cat resembles neither, transcending the doom and gloom of his mentor and source material for something vibrantly new.
If there is a protagonist in Zürcher’s production, it would be the mother, played with melancholic reserve by Jenny Schily. As the family’s figurehead, she by nature has her hand in the workings of the cramped and busy household, yet her involvement is mostly as overseer of the chaos. She lingers over the counter, watching her family muck about while mulling over a recent event in which she took her mother to the movies. The man sitting next to her accidentally placed his foot atop hers without realizing and she failed to react quickly enough for it not to be socially awkward to move away after a moment. So, she didn’t, instead waited patiently for him to move himself. The event plays out in curious flashback, highlighting the maladroit phenomenon of cordial awkwardness of bodies meeting unannounced.
The sequence brings into focus the film’s recurring rumination on how objects interact with one another, often in seemingly mysterious ways – orange peels always land white flesh up, a bottle enigmatically spins within a pot, and minor bloodshed can render humor rather than pain. This relationship with the worldly objects we surround ourselves with return in portraiture montage that humanizes through the strength of a cello driven track titled “Pulchritude” by the San Francisco post-rock band Thee More Shallows. It’s as if we’re being questioned on the possibility that we can not plainly be without the objects that we surround ourselves with and its punctuated by the fact that the apartment is swarmed with animals – the titular cat, a dog, rats, moths, etc.
What’s more, Zürcher’s structural rigor in the framing of the apartment spaces and the choreography of each and every scene works in contrast with the exuberance of life that exudes from the family as a unit. His camera alternates between head-on, squarely composed images of people and angularly placed shots in which bodies and objects move in and out of the frame, creating visual tension between the mildly surreal (head-on) and the natural (angular) that reflects the norm of tight apartment living and the odd phenomenons that occur within these spaces. Zürcher’s ability to convey this structural balance in tandem with the emotional counterbalance presumably inherent in age is what makes The Strange Little Cat an oddly beautiful mystery, brilliantly alive.
KimStim’s low-key DVD release of the film exquisitely renders the film, shot in supremely crisp digital. Every shot exudes fine detail and clarity, but none so much as the various close-ups of the orange cat lounging around the apartment. The German language audio track is surprisingly robust, especially when the soundtrack begins to swell in the mix. Dialogue is clear and supplemented by the optional traditionally blocky DVD standard English language subtitles.
Intro and Post screening Q&A
As part of the New Directors/New Films series presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and The Museum of Modern Art, the filmmakers and a pair of actors from the film sit for a Q&A with programmer and film critic Dennis Lim.
Having debuted at the Berlin Film Festival, won the New Talent Grand Pix at CPH PIX in Denmark and gone on to play Cannes, TIFF and AFI Fest, it was unclear whether Zürcher’s marvelous debut would find a US distributor. Yet, at long last, KimStim has come to the rescue with, if not a high res Blu-ray release, a respectably preserved transfer with a great Q&A with the filmmakers in tow. With such a strongly realized vision, this is a filmmaker to watch for.