News from Catland

The Benedict Cumberbatch cat movie is better than the Benedict Cumberbatch dog movie, in our view. Not just because the dog movie has no dogs, just shadow that looks a but like one, whereas the cat movie has actual cats, lots of them, some of which speak to us via subtitles, but because the cat movie is surprising, original, wonderfully moving, and because it is inside the realm of stuff B.C. can do compellingly well. Not that it doesn’t stretch him, but it stretches him into places he can actually reach.

You have to stick at it: Will Sharpe’s film, THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN, co-written with Simon Stephenson, documents the life of Edwardian cat painter Louis Wain, and his undiagnosable strangeness, and it uses several techniques that get it off to an uncertain start. There’s an omniscient narrator, Olivia Coleman, who sometimes makes it feel too much like a documentary, or worse, a tape-slide presentation — Arthur Sharpe’s score sometimes has a docu-quality too, the way it runs on from one scene through another — however, it is absolutely gorgeous, and weird, the best film score I’ve heard lately. The other problems seemed to me to lie in an over-fussy condensation of images, as if the film had been mired in post-production with a lot of competing voices arguing over the first act (there are twelve producers listed), and a tendency for the wide-angle lens to be observing from too far away or from the wrong side altogether. When it calmed down and simply observed the performances (Cumberbatch is great, Claire Foy is great) things immediately got better.

As an artist biopic, the natural comparison for it would be the works of Ken Russell — and the VO makes it early Russell. But it’s photographed inside the artist’s mind, so it also has aspects of mid-period Russell. The two best periods, arguably. And it’s its own thing, at the end of the day: not hugely like anything else out there.

Cumberbatch has a false nose, a distant stare, awkward body language, an accretion of old age makeup (very effective) — but it seems to me a truly FELT performance, not a bunch of tricks. Since Louis is always a step or two away from consensus reality, the early parts of the film also suffer a little from our difficulty in getting close to him, especially since his sisters, the other main characters at this point, are rather noisy and unsympathetic. Foy’s entrance into the film forms a bridge to Louis, allowing us greater access to his emotions. It clearly allows HIM greater access to his emotions, too.

Totally recommend this one, but you have to give it more than half an hour, brushing aside impatience and irritation and waiting for the catmagic to take hold. I picked up the director’s previous film, BLACK POND, a while back, now I must watch it.

9 Responses to “News from Catland”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    The Benedict Cumberbach Dog Movie is sweeping this year’s LAFCA Awards, and I genuinely hate it.

    The other great cat movie (aftr the Resnais) is Rivette’s “Celine and Julie Go Boating”

  3. The great source of cat films of one kind or another is Japan – animation/anime, horror, and above all, Kon Ichikawa’s I am a Cat.

  4. Just learned that Ichikawa’s film isn’t even the first version of that story. But possibly the best.

    The Campion film would have seemed naive and stereotyped forty years ago, is my feeling. It would have been harder to get made, but that’s a positive aspect of our times, not a praiseworthy aspect of the film.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

  6. Just discovered there’s an earlier cat documentary from the director of Mill of the Stone Women. Now that HAS to be good.

  7. …and there’s John Berger’s Tashkafa: Stories of the Street, about people in Istanbul who look after stray dogs. It has some cats as well, if I remember rightly.

  8. David Ehrenstein Says:

    My disgust was premature. “Drive My Car” beat “Power of the Dog” Thankfully.

    As for Benny Cumberbun —

  9. Heard great things about Drive My Car!

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