The short novel “Cat Person,” which went viral for real, was a refreshingly no-nonsense anti-romance about a college student who begins dating an older man who may or may not be a creep. The story’s clinical examination of the delicate and occasionally terrifying dance of contemporary dating, written by Kristen Roupenian and first published in The New Yorker in 2017, at the height of the Me Too movement, sparked discussion.Thank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!
Cat Person is an insightful look at how a woman’s desire for sexual attention can lead to a situation where she has sex without wanting it, as seen through the eyes of Margot, a college sophomore who works part-time at a movie theater, and meets Robert, a nerdy 34-year-old man who loves Red Vines. Not because she thought he would try to force her to do something against her will, but because she was worried that demanding they stop now would make her look spoiled and capricious, like she had ordered food from a restaurant and then, once it arrived, changed her mind and sent it back.
This week sees the limited theatrical release of the film version of Cat Person, which faithfully recreates this scene and numerous others. What was already cringe-worthy on the pages of a prestigious magazine is made even cringe-worthy by turning us into witnesses to what unfolds in this film written by Michelle Ashford (creator of Showtime’s Masters of Sex) and directed by Susanna Fogel (writer of Booksmart and co-director of the limited series A Small Light).
It’s one thing to read about the first time Margot (CODA’s Emilia Jones) and Robert (Nicholas Braun of Succession) locked lips onscreen and had the words “It was a terrible kiss, shockingly bad” characterize the encounter. To see Cousin Greg virtually engulf Jones’s whole brunette head with his lips is something quite different.
Cat Person, as faithfully as it sticks to the source material, has to stretch the story to make it last for two hours. New people enter the story, including Margot’s feminist roommate (Geraldine Viswanathan, of Miracle Workers), who repeatedly advises her against spending time with Robert, and her anthropology professor (Isabella Rossellini), who makes plainly allegorical remarks about the mating behaviors of ants. Much of the picture has a really terrifying atmosphere.
Margot’s phone goes off like an alarm whenever Robert sends a text. She eventually agrees to meet up in person through text message when she is working late in her professor’s lab. In front of her while she makes preparations is a human skeleton, a sign of doom as blatant as an axe murderer brandishing the weapon itself.
Similar to Roupenian’s short tale, the ending of This Cat Person doesn’t make either protagonist out to be a bad guy. It would have been more effective to let some moments and dialogues speak for themselves, but the movie has a propensity to overexplain and flagrantly telegraph its ideas elsewhere. Also, Margot’s imagination is often explored via fantastical episodes, some of which are more powerful than others.
A plot point that seems more like a gimmick than an essential narrative note to strike is Margot’s vision of Robert choking her in the vehicle on their first date. Cat Person seems honest, even bold, for portraying the discomfort, ambiguity, and misplaced drive for confirmation that might accompany an ill-advised encounter when Margot conducts an out-of-body discussion with herself during sex and considers how to possibly flee the situation.
Ashford adds some humorous pop culture references that lighten up what might have been a very serious tale. It turns out that Robert is a huge Star Wars fan and Harrison Ford fanatic, so much so that he wants to take Margot to see The Empire Strikes Back on their first date.
Robert clearly learned that giving a woman “what she really wants” is the most sweet thing a man can do, even if she doesn’t want it. For example, he sent Margot a bunch of movie clips that showed the first kiss Han forces on Leia in that sequel. If Margot didn’t immediately clarify that subtext for the viewer, this insight, like so much in Cat Person, would have much more weight.
Seeing how Braun and Jones approach and recede from one another is what makes the fight so interesting to watch. Good chemistry doesn’t entirely describe it; rather, it’s more correct to say that both performers know how to make the characters’ lack of chemistry believable and palpable.
After his time on Succession, Braun has mastered the art of being uncomfortable, but he gives Robert a touch of menace that sets him apart from Braun’s portrayal of Greg. Jones accepts Margot’s passivity without flattening her; Margot’s large eyes convey her own drive. It helps that Jones looks something like Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher.
The short tale concludes with a text conversation that reveals Robert’s darker side, but the film continues to show us what occurs after that. Therein lies Cat Person’s greatest weakness. The movie, being a visual medium, naturally aspires to convey more than a short story of c. 7,000 words.
However, there is still some blank space in this analysis of the traits and feelings we attribute to others. The textual form of Cat Person gave us the opportunity to infer meaning, much as when decoding the text messages of a potential romantic interest. Although it maintains that sexual and romantic ambiguity will always exist, the film adaptation ultimately struggles to accept its own ambivalence.