Like most viral internet obsessions heralded as evidence of the zeitgeist, Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” was more cultural litmus test than anything else.
The short story, published in The New Yorker during the winter of 2017, was met with almost vertiginous levels of fanfare and debate. On one side: applause for Roupenian’s blunt portrayal of 21st-century dating, which mirrored the confessional verve of a New York Magazine “Sex Diaries” column. On the other: eye-rolls directed at the hype machine, criticisms aimed at the writer’s style, complaints filed from offended parties.
The Bottom Line
Bound to fire up the discourse.
The story, a provocative tale of a curdling romance between a college sophomore and a man more than a decade her senior, was obscured in the cacophony of the discourse. The conversation — on the merits of the story, on why it elicited such a strong reaction, on what it says about communication — spiraled, and the plot was lost. I suspect the same fate will befall Susanna Fogel’s high-wire adaptation, which premiered at this year’s Sundance and will undoubtedly find a captive, devoted audience.
Cat Person — directed by Fogel (co-writer on Booksmart) and written by Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex) — knows its reputation and capitalizes on this self-awareness. Fogel and Ashford tease out the latent horror in the story. The nightmares of dating, the fear of intimacy and the anxiety of trusting potential suitors become strange sounds, shadowy figures and visions of inescapable situations. It’s a liberating approach that the film gets close to nervously sabotaging. Like a helicopter parent with access to Find My Friends, Cat Person can’t help but keep checking in.
This distrust in viewers isn’t initially obvious. Cat Person opens by embracing its source material and flaunting its genre aspirations. Margot (Emilia Jones) meets Robert (Nicholas Braun) at the town movie theater, where she tends the concession stand. Their initial interaction echoes the shy coolness of the short story: Margot makes fun of Robert for buying Red Vines and he jokes that she’s bad at her job.
The film strikes out on its own when Margot happens upon a stray dog in front of her dorm building. She tries to sneak the canine into her room. But the floor is hawkishly surveilled by a condescending resident advisor, who, upon hearing Margot shuffling through the hall, reminds our protagonist that animals aren’t allowed. That night, Margot dreams about the dog howling outside her window and then mauling her R.A. This scene sets the mood, establishing the film’s intent to play with the line between real and unreal. Taking up the technique of recent social horror films — like Get Out and Promising Young Woman — Cat Person translates the terror of society’s issues into atmospheric dread.
At work the next night, Margot and Robert exchange numbers and begin their affair. They text everyday; some messages are more cringe-worthy than others. Margot’s friend, Tamara (the always exciting Geraldine Viswanathan), an outspoken feminist who moderates internet boards, encourages her to set boundaries early and often. Margot doesn’t listen. The more she talks to Robert, the more bifurcated her vision of him becomes: The man is at once a charmer and a potential murderer.
Scenes like the one where Robert drops off some food for Margot, who is working late in a campus lab, confirm this sense. The juvenescence of their relationship — confined mostly to texting — makes each interaction fraught with the danger of a fatal misstep. Small acts like how Robert hands her the treats or reaches for her arm activate Margot’s anxiety as she imagines him lunging at or attacking her. DP Manuel Billeter, boosted by composer Heather McIntosh, creates a visual language that moves easily between placidity and terror. Jones (CODA) and Braun (Succession) bolster the believability of these moments; their performances induce the appropriate levels of second-hand embarrassment.
Hovering around these taut interactions underscoring the failures and anxieties of cishet dating are the check-ins — the interludes that want to make sure we’re picking up what Fogel, Ashford and Roupenian are putting down. Monologues on ants given by Margot’s anthropology professor (a scene-stealing Isabella Rossellini) or fantasy therapy sessions with an unnamed analyst (Fred Melamed) loudly telegraph the stakes and too neatly package the themes. At their best, these are fun-to-indulge cameos; at their worst, they’re evidence of the filmmakers not fully trusting the viewer.
Roupenian’s story is most interesting when it exercises restraint and a comfort with ambiguity. The violence of socialized gender roles feeds on gray areas and rejection. After Margot ends the dalliance in the story, Robert’s initial sadness morphs and calcifies into an unsavory rage. He texts her again, each message more aggressive than the last until the story ends with him calling Margot a whore.
Cat Person effectively reproduces that scene and the ones leading up to it, but it doesn’t end there. A hair-raising third act adds an unusual coda — one that I, after only one viewing, am still processing. The relief, however, is in the filmmakers’ approach to these tense scenes: Fogel and Ashford loosen their grip, at last trusting us to sit in our discomfort, draw our own conclusions and sharpen our tools for the discourse.