Perhaps you love cats. Maybe you own one. Maybe you talk to it. Maybe you wish it could talk back. What wacky, funny things would it say?
If you are given to such whimsy, then you might find interesting Chatty Catties, a movie that portrays a world where humans and felines speak to each other in English. Maybe that sounds to you like a wonderful world, and a fun night out at the movies.
O dear, sweet Pollyanna, I must deliver unto thee this spoiler: Chatty Catties has a silly title, but a dark heart. It may very well reduce you to tears, and cause you to hope that cats, and most certainly your cat, will never be able to convey their thoughts via human speech, for cruelty is real, and its nidus, evidently, is the feline mind.
And that is precisely why I recommend it. At turns awkward, uncomfortable, mean, real, fake, terrible, good, inartful, artful and funny, it is more Inland Empire than Babe, refusing to live up to expectations, least of all those you might harbor after discovering its funky title.
The main through-line of the film concerns a twenty- (or early-thirty-?) something woman-in-trouble named Shelby, and her talking cat Leonard. Their relationship plays out in a series of conversational vignettes, rather than conventional scenes, wherein Shelby does or says something, and Leonard criticizes her. Quasi-artsy super-8 clips, and snippets of other cats talking to their owners, fill the gaps between the otherwise episodic Shelby and Leonard Show.
Or should I say War? Leonard hates Shelby, and not in a shallow Garfield-hates-John kind of way. When it comes to Shelby, Leonard is Garfield 2.0. He’s more disaffected. He’s more critical. He’s more brutally honest. He’s also less invested, less loyal, and less funny (if Garfield can be considered funny). Leonard longs to be free of Shelby to a degree Garfield never wanted to be free of John. He seems to show affection to everyone but her, even though she mostly treats him better than she treats herself or anyone else.
Why does Leonard hate her so much? Sure, Shelby is an aimless drunkard who is a little dirty and a lot selfish, barely holding down her banal receptionist job, her friendships, and her alcohol. She’s a mess, but you might see a bit of yourself in her messiness. She has crushed creative ambitions and she loves her cat. You might want to like her. A more typical charming/endearing indie film might even allow her to brighten into an Amelie-like figure.
But this is not some French fairytale. Leonard, and the film, won’t let her, or you, off the hook so easily. This is about disintegration and downfall. Shelby doesn’t have an arc. She has a slope that points decisively downward like a Great Depression-era stock arrow charted for misery, its jagged plunge-line scratched into stone by an inexplicably heartless Leonard.
When Shelby’s name appears on her apartment wall, a broken banner hanging in the aftermath of a bad birthday party whose remains read only “by by,” you might find yourself wondering why. Why was Leonard so discontented, so cruel, so eager to destroy such a marginally-damaged person? Who is the protagonist here? Who is the antagonist? Chatty Catties blurs the lines. The protagonist seems to be Leonard, and yet no wrong is done him by the supposed antagonist Shelby.
As for the rest of the film, we don’t get to know much about the characters depicted in the aforementioned interstitial scenes. The other cats generally seem critical while their humans generally seem criticized. If the film’s intention is to show that speech-enabled cats would scratch emotionally as much as they do physically, then mission accomplished.
One interstitial scene is particularly strange. The camera floats around a wall of cages in an animal shelter. As each caged cat enters the frame, they “speak” a little one-liner that is intended, I think, to be cute and humorous, but instead comes off as cringe-worthy and sad, as images of lonesome, and perhaps doomed, pets in that kind of environment are wont to do. It is hard to process the mixed signals of this sequence as it tries to transform the depressing plight of shelter cats into aww-shucks laughs. Because it is such a perfect crystallization of the emotional tenor of the entire film, I can’t decide if it’s an awful misstep or a savvy thesis statement. I didn’t expect a film named Chatty Catties to remind me that life is cruel. On second thought, perhaps this is a French fairytale.
Final assessment: If you want to see a talking cat destroy a woman’s already wobbly life, and laugh a little along the way, Chatty Catties is the film for you. The ending alone might justify the price of admission.
Chatty Catties plays September 9th, 17th, and October 8th at Northwest Film Forum. Go HERE for tickets/more info.
(Pablo Valencia, US, 2016, 84 min)
Friday, Sep 09 at 10:00PM
Saturday, Sep 17 at 10:00PM
Saturday, Oct 08 at 10:00PM