Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Pads and Claws: The Cat Vanishes

In Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973), detective Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) loses his cat when he tries to feed him food he doesn't care for (worse, he tries to fool the pet by pretending it's his favourite). The cat's disappearance becomes a test of loyalty that opens up the theme of the picture. In Argentinian director Carlos Sorin's sly and deceptive The Cat Vanishes, when the pet feline Donatello flees, it becomes a test of sanity for both the characters and us. The Cat Vanishes is being compared to Hitchcock's thrillers, but the resemblance is superficial at best. Unlike Hitchcock, Sorin submerges the familiar techniques of suspense while presenting instead a chamber piece that's embroidered with chills. The story is as devious as the missing Donatello.

The Cat Vanishes opens humorously with a lengthy exposition scene that resembles a similar one that concluded Psycho. A number of psychologists are gathered to discuss Luis (Luis Luque), a history professor who has been institutionalized after having a major breakdown. This esteemed scholar had thought a colleague had stolen his life work with the aid of his wife Beatriz (Beatriz Spelzini), so his violent outburst against both of them lands him in the mental hospital. But the doctors also believe that his breakdown was temporary. Given his solid reputation, they arrive at the conclusion that maybe he should be released into the care of Beatriz. At first, Beatriz tries to make Luis comfortable and calm, but when Donatello freaks out at his arrival and soon disappears, Beatriz begins to wonder if all is well with her hubby after all. She even wonders if his appearance and the cat's departure are linked.

Of course, the expanding joke in The Cat Vanishes is that as Beatriz grows more and more paranoid, we wonder if all is actually well with her. Both Luis Luque and Beatriz Spelzini play their scenes with the comfort of two old partners who know each other so well that they can intuit each other's thoughts. Their effectiveness and Sorin's underplaying of the creepiness lets the suspense sneak up on you. The longer Donatello is absent, the more Beatriz grows suspicious of Luis which allows us in the audience to imagine the gruesome fate that might have befallen the critter.

Luis Luque and Beatriz Spelzini
Sorin doesn't play to the obvious expectations of the audience. The comic moments don't even bring relief. Early on, Luis begins obsessively rearranging the books in his study as if trying to create some stability in his life, but his wife becomes undone by bouts of insomnia brought on by the horrific memory of Luis's earlier violent episode and fearing that it could happen again. (His convalescence becomes her albatross.) A brief meeting between her and Luis's still terrified colleague to commiserate the possibility of Luis's sanity instead portrays the possibility of mice caught in the pads and claws of a crafty kitty.

They're actually caught in the grip of a wily director who smoothly lays out a sharply designed labyrinth where paranoia can find a comfortable home in the sane, as well as the insane. To Sorin's credit, too, he keeps us guessing right up until the end as to who is the captor and who is the prey. The Cat Vanishes is a deviously funny and unnerving little species, much like the missing feline who inspires it.

 Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Through Ryerson Chang School, Courrier begins a 10-week course on writing criticism (Analyze This: Writing Criticism) that begins September 12th (6:30pm until 9pm) until November 21st. Classes will be held at the Bell Lightbox. (For more information, or to sign up, see here.)  

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