Cat Person, Kristen Roupenian’s viral short story published in The New Yorker in 2017, isn’t particularly subtle. It catalogues a brief but disastrous relationship from the perspective of 20-year-old college student Margot, who can’t quite compartmentalise her feelings about the decade-older, socially inept Robert. She pities him, but he also disgusts her. He’s tall, and being desired by such a stumbling oaf makes her feel youthful and delicate. He belittles, infantilises, and controls her in a thousand, near-invisible ways. She consistently puts his emotions before her own.
As a work of fiction, Roupenian’s story is somehow clear cut and messy at the same time, but its arrival right at the crest of the #MeToo movement meant that the conversation around Cat Person was often more illuminating than Cat Person itself. Yet, I highly doubt anything useful will come out of Cat Person’s transition to the big screen. Whatever nuance there was has been stripped here. Margot and Robert, over the film’s runtime, disintegrate before our eyes, turning from real human beings into yowling mouthpieces. It’s frustrating, ultimately – Roupenian’s story struck a chord because it’s so rare to see someone willing to put words to the murky, complex, profoundly internalised corners of gender politics.
Whatever its intentions, the film adaptation of Cat Person is the cinematic equivalent of the loudest person in the room with the least amount to say. Part of the problem here is that Margot (played by Coda star Emilia Jones) isn’t allowed the same slippery, contradictory interiority as she was in Roupenian’s story. Director Susanna Vogel, who also wrote 2019’s far funnier and sharp-eyed Booksmart, shoots Margot and Robert’s early flirtations plainly. When Robert (Succession’s Nicholas Braun) turns up to her job at a repertory cinema, all we get from her is a text to her friend Taylor (Geraldine Viswanathan), saying he looks like “the best friend in a Judd Apatow movie”. He stares at her like a cartoon wolf whose eyes are about to pop out of his head, and mumbles all his sentences into his shoes.
In Roupenian’s story, Margot’s fear that there was something deeply sinister about Robert, hidden beneath the awkwardness and the mortifying ineptitude at sex, was a brief, intrusive thought. That was the point – how normal it is for women to feel unsafe around men, and how men don’t have to be all-out monsters to engage in casual cruelty. But Vogel, alongside screenwriter Michelle Ashford, seems largely uninterested in this finer point. Instead, we’re handed a series of symbolic elaborations on the film’s opening quote: Margaret Atwood’s “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” They land with the subtlety of a frying pan to the head.
Margot is now an anthropologist (!) studying human sacrifice (!) whose professor (Isabella Rossellini) owns an ant farm and waxes lyrical about their matriarchal society (!). Margot’s anxieties are repeatedly expressed as flashy horror sequences. At times, she imagines Robert in session with a psychotherapist. A key incident – in which Robert invites Margot on a date to see a Holocaust film, purely as a demonstration of intellectual superiority – is replaced with a more sincere invitation to see The Empire Strikes Back. She humiliates him for it, since “Star Wars is boring”.
It’s a small, but telling choice, because it reveals how sloppily Cat Person conflates what’s annoying and what’s harmful. It’s also an early indication of how baffling the film’s final stretch will be, as Ashford expands the story far, far, beyond Roupenian’s original, blunt conclusion. Here, both characters cross the line in ways that are so brazenly improbable and unacceptable (socially and legally) that it renders itself entirely pointless. By the end, Cat Person has killed any hope of a real conversation about modern love.
Dir: Susanna Fogel. Starring: Emilia Jones, Nicholas Braun, Geraldine Viswanathan, Hope Davis, Fred Melamed, Isabella Rossellini. Cert 15, 120 minutes
‘Cat Person’ is in cinemas from 27 October