Seemingly incomparable, a film that feels completely distinct and original.
The Strange Little Cat
Want to know the definition of beguiling? Look no further than The Strange Little Cat. Ramon Zürcher’s debut feature definitely lives up to both of its title’s adjectives. At 69 minutes in length, it’s so brief it barely even qualifies as a feature. And every moment is absolutely strange. It’s an enigma of a film, something so simple on the surface and yet every scene feels like something isn’t quite right. It’s primarily in one location, but every frame is so densely packed and precisely composed it can get overwhelming. No matter what one’s opinion of The Strange Little Cat is, it accomplishes something rare: it’s seemingly incomparable, a film that feels completely distinct and original.
Look at reviews for The Strange Little Cat, and most of the time reviewers will describe scenes rather than get into story. That’s because there really is next to no plot. A German family spends the day preparing for a dinner. The closest thing to a main character is the mother (Jenny Schily). Her older children Karin (Anjorka Strechel) and Simon (Luk Pfaff) are visiting, and one by one more relatives show up to either help prepare or wait for dinner. On a basic level, that’s The Strange Little Cat in a nutshell.
But Zürcher isn’t interested in telling a story through conventional means. There’s an obsessive focus on environment and actions – on the way characters interact with each other and the apartment’s interior. Several people appear in the frame at a time, each performing some sort of mundane task like washing dishes or cleaning, conversing with each other or reacting to something going on just outside of the frame. Conversations occur between multiple characters at the same time, with each person weaving in and out of topics. Shots are composed to reveal surprises in the frame, like a character’s presence or an unexpected action in the background. A conversation between Karin and her mother is interrupted when a bag attached to a rope gets pulled up outside the kitchen window. The mother gets up from the dinner table, revealing the family cat sitting behind her the entire time. For such a small environment, these tricks are a delight to watch.
And that’s the amazing thing about The Strange Little Cat; for a chamber piece it’s bursting with so much liveliness and activity. Zürcher structures the film into segments, each one separated by a recurring musical piece and shots of items mentioned in previous scenes. Quiet moments are peppered throughout, usually an exchange between family members or someone delivering a monologue about a peculiar event in their life. It creates an off-kilter rhythm, one that goes along with the organized chaos invading every frame. The absurdity of these quotidian tasks piled so closely to one another also serves a purpose beyond admiring the balletic quality of the staging. It gives an insight into the distant, fractured relationship within the family. Each person tends to work alone, acting like they’re in their own ecosystem despite the commotion going on around them. It reveals a contradictory image: a communal gathering of isolated people.
Although reading too deeply into Zürcher’s film might not be too beneficial, as tempting as it may be. The uniqueness of The Strange Little Cat gives it a mysterious quality, one that probably won’t get satiated no matter how many times one watches the film. The attention to detail brings Jacques Tati’s work to mind, but Zürcher doesn’t go for broad physical gags or long shots. He squeezes everything into a tight space, letting the fascination of observing this sort of elaborate, abstract dance carry the film. It’s a daring move made all the more baffling and exciting by how well it works. With such a quick runtime, it’s hard not to find an excuse to watch The Strange Little Cat. Material this engagingly bizarre doesn’t come around often, let alone in such a small, neat package like this.