MA15+. 118 minutes.
American director Susanna Fogel's Cat Person is a difficult watch for a number of reasons. In particular, while its first half is a charmingly quirky look at the awkwardness of the dos-and-don'ts of modern dating, it starts to veer more and more into the territory of Promising Young Woman and you remain unsure throughout whether this is black comedy or something darker.
It can be both, of course, but it disturbs the equilibrium to find that what was previously millennial banter make so drastic a turn, and the director of The Spy Who Dumped Me suddenly gives us Eli Roth.
Some people may remember Kristen Roupenian's 2017 short story in The New Yorker - published at the height of #MeToo - and recall the social media sensation it caused.
Margot (Emilia Jones) is a college undergrad studying under the patient eye of Doctor Zabala (Isabella Rossellini) and working nights behind the candy bar at the local art house cinema. She has an awkward interaction with a male customer one night, making a joke about his food choices that doesn't land.
The chap is Robert (Nicholas Braun), and he is plenty awkward himself, but he does work up the courage to ask for her phone number. A few weeks of increasingly flirtatious texting ensues, and Margot seems smitten with this guy. She loves his jokes about his cats, which a roommate points out means he's caring and responsible for owning.
Her best friend Taylor (Geraldine Viswanathan) spends a lot of her time managing a feminist Reddit group and is full of warnings for Margot that men constantly misrepresent themselves online.
Margot and Robert have a disastrous first date. When their second date culminates in bad sex, she starts to see that there were a series of red flags about this guy throughout their relationship, but for her the biggest has to be that he didn't seem to actually have any cats. What stories has Margot constructed about this guy in her head, she asks herself as she realises that he didn't say much about himself at all.
I don't want to delve too much into any observations that might spoil it from there, though the short story is findable online if you wanted to do a little prep work. Even then that only takes you up to this film's three-quarter mark. Screenwriter Michelle Ashford, of Masters of Sex fame, and Roupenian give the characters some further development, and closure.
Fogel directs the film like it's an A24 horror-comedy and for much of the film it works effectively within this genre.
The "scary" in this horror is everyday for many women - the terror of walking across a partially-lit campus or car park, for example, or of feeling the need to be seen as "nice" and so putting up with horrific behaviours out of politeness. The horror is summed up in the Margaret Atwood quote that opens the film: "Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them."
Fogel and Jones imaginatively play out visually the inner monologue of Margot's self-doubts, an element readers connected strongly with in the short story.
The performances are strong though some of the lesser characters don't serve the story - particularly Liza Koshy as Margot's musical theatre major roommate. The lustrous Isabella Rossellini is underused. As Margot's best friend, voice of reason, and occasional gaslight-sensing canary, Aussie actress Viswanathan gives comic relief.
Braun has a real challenge in playing Robert as a quiet figure upon which Margot, and we, might project ideas of who he is. The character is a world away from the gormless Cousin Greg Braun played so well on Succession.
I'm more of a dog person myself.