The Strange Little Cat (2013) SFIFF56 Review

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What: Film Review
Directed by: Ramon Zurcher
Written by: Ramon Zurcher
Produced by: Johanna Bergel, Silvan Zuercher
Starring: Matthias Dittmer, Jenny Schily, Anjorka Strechel, Sabine Werner, Luk Pfaff, Leon Alan Beiersdorf, Mia Casalo
Language: German w/ English subtitles
Running Time (in min.): 72 minutes
Rating: Not Rated
Official Selection of the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival

The Strange Little Cat (Original Title: Das merkwurdige Katzchen) (2013)

When was the last time a movie was so good that you faulted it for ending too early? I have no memory of such a film in my academic and professional career(s) as a critic, but recall feeling that way, often and painfully, as a child. Watching the fourth, fifth, and sixth episodes of Star Wars was never pleasant; it was instead an act of sadism, building to the part of my night when I sobbed or played video games to recapture the awe I felt watching them (I never could.) That sensation, foreign to me for so long, overcame me as the seventy-two minute German feature The Strange Little Cat drew to a close.

The first feature-length film by writer, editor, executive producer, and director Ramon Zurcher is a study in human behavior so acutely observed, so odd, and so funny as to make the fact that it must sometime end a dreaded pain. I refer to the director’s surname as a means of understanding the main gifts his film provides. Like Zurich, his namesake, Ramon Zurcher’s film is constructed immaculately, is small in scope but wide in personality, and is brimming with intelligence and wisdom. That The Strange Little Cat takes place almost entirely within the confines of a family’s Berlin apartment seems nearly impossible.

But for this new and bright filmmaker, it is not. Over the course of a day, Mutter (the remarkable Jenny Schily) and Vater (Matthias Dittmer) prepare for a dinner in their home to celebrate the visits of their working-age children Simon (Luk Pfaff) and Karin (Anjorka Strechel). Simon and Karin’s pre-teen sister Clara (Mia Kasalo) revels in the attention from her siblings and parents, opening the film by screaming at high pitch to best a fruit blender. Coming over for the evening are the handsome and industrious Schwager (Armin Marewski) and his pale, peculiar son Jonas (Leon Alan Beiersdorf). And somewhere, sleeping the day away but excited to spend time with her children and grandchildren, is the feeble Grandmother (Monika Hetterle).

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For the surnameless family, the get-together is ordinary, even banal; but the day’s orchestration is anything but. Zurcher choreographs the comings-and-goings of the extended clan as they busy themselves with mundane tasks like smoking cigarette after cigarette on the balcony, peeling an orange, or fixing the washing machine. His camera sits stills, patiently watching as each activity domino-effects itself into the next, and then he finally cuts. In the interplay of physical motion and the resultant droll comedy, Zurcher announces a solemn affinity with Jacques Tati. Like a dark-eyed Tati (and, in ways that I have yet to put my finger on explaining, Wes Anderson), Zurcher chooses to capture this rolling sequence of motion with flawless production design and stellar frame compositions. Shots of the aforementioned orange peels and of the titular cat – whose presence is like a chapter marker in a novel – take on a serenity that could either be attributed to magic realism or to still-life portraits. In that regard, the text remains open to interpretation.

The characters themselves are entirely stilted and peculiar, but this only deepens the sense of their full-fledged conceptions in the script. One moment they deliver face-to-face abstract monologues about dreams, and the next, they look on the verge tears. Zurcher suggests in these extensive scenes that the family is swimming in emotion – especially Mutter, to whom Jenny Schily lends a particular quality of melancholia and angst. As her daughter Clara, Mia Kasalo exudes bright white light and natural intelligence far beyond her years. Every moment in which she and the sarcastic, cynical, and coldly fun Strechel interact is a pleasure. It is perhaps Strechel whose performance contains the most charm, but in a film rich with strong actors, who can say?

However, the film – which was recognized as an Official Selection of the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival in May – walks the line between theater and cinema, and concludes as quickly and unnecessarily as a one-act play. While The Strange Little Cat is so visually and verbally filled with pleasures that multiple viewings might best serve it, the fact of its ending is a sad feeling that first time is a sad feeling indeed.

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