In late 2017, The New Yorker published Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person”, a buzzworthy short story that achieved viral success in the wake of the #MeToo movement. It’s unusual for short fiction to garner such attention, but this zeitgeist-capturing quick-read became a pop-culture sensation, striking a chord with its depiction of the thorny—and often terrifying—nature of dating. While many found the story relatable, this 7,000-word relationship drama didn’t immediately suggest a “big screen adaptation.”
Nevertheless, six years later, we have Susanna Fogel’s Cat Person, a puzzling film that sees all of the nuance and subtext of the short story and takes a match to it. The film opens with Margaret Atwood’s famous quote about men fearing women will laugh at them, while women fear men might kill them. However true and chilling this quote is, it serves as the first of many on-the-nose attempts to drive home the film’s message.
For the first two-thirds, the plot mirrors the short story: Margot (CODA’s Emilia Jones) encounters Robert (Succession’s Nicholas Braun), a regular patron at the theatre where she works. He’s older and an awkward flirt, but Margot is intrigued. They exchange numbers and strike up a text-based relationship. Robert is sweet and playful via text, charming Margot by impersonating his two cats. However, when they finally go on a date, Robert is reserved and enigmatic, leaving Margot on edge. This raises all-too-familiar questions about him: is he just a hapless dater, or something more sinister?
The film is at its best when it is exploring Margot’s evolving feelings for Robert amidst their shifting dynamic. After a terrible first kiss, Margot discovers that despite being the older of the two, Robert is seemingly the less experienced in that department. She finds this endearing and, emboldened by the notion that Robert would be extremely grateful to sleep with her, she agrees to go home with him. This leads to an excruciatingly awkward sex scene, initially light-hearted but then delving into the complex issues at the heart of the piece. Margot’s inner thoughts manifest as another version of herself watching the action unfold, and Margot begins debating with herself the consequences of stopping the encounter. With concerns about Robert’s feelings, as well as her own safety, Margot ultimately decides just to get it over with.
This encounter and its aftermath are what made the short story such a vital piece at the time of its publication. Up until this point, the film does a commendable job of adapting it and is mostly an enjoyable and engaging watch, though the heavy-handed symbolism is glaringly evident throughout. However, when the script surpasses the point of the short story, the film obliterates any goodwill it had garnered in its first two acts. The third act is entirely out of sync with what makes the story compelling. Although nothing was especially subtle up to this point, Fogel and screenwriter Michelle Ashford eventually give up and render all of the film’s themes overtly explicit. While the source material isn’t inherently cinematic, the choice to append this at the end diminishes the story’s impact.
This tonal mismanagement plagues the film from start to finish. In addition to the voiceover, we are immersed in Margot’s thoughts through a series of clumsily executed cutaways that disrupt the film at frequent intervals. Some of these resemble awkward SNL sketches, while others play out like horror scenes, meant to highlight the everyday dangers facing women but overpowered by glaringly obvious imagery. At times, it’s challenging to discern Fogel’s intent from scene to scene, a factor that frequently undermines the core themes and queries that support the narrative. It is the unease and lingering questions that render Cat Person a compelling and relatable story—unfortunately, the film opts to answer them all, in the most ill-conceived manner imaginable.