Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Jacques Tourneur's 'Cat People', 1942

This film I found VERY interesting!

The story is that this beautiful, exotic woman from Serbia, Irena, has found refuge in America and appears to win the heart of a businessman.  However, despite their marriage she can't have sex with him because if she does she will turn into a panther and kill him, as is the curse of her people.  Gradually through the film the husband pulls away from his troublesome wife and decides he loves his work colleague, an average American woman.  At the end of this film I was left feeling horrible for poor Irena as not only can she not kiss or have sex with the man she loves but he's decided to leave her as "he's no used to being unhappy" and has decided, with her help, that he loves his colleague as she's more normal.

I guess this can be looked at in a broader sense.  Irena represents an internal foreign element to the normal American citizens. This is supported in Empire's essay on the film "by setting the action in contemporary New York ...Cat People is among the first supernatural horror films to take place in a world its audience was familiar with", thus making it much more effective to the audience.  Irena is beautiful and has a hidden secret that later leads to the death of one man and a threat to the lives of others, which seeing as it's at the time of World War II, could be seen as a warning to the audience to not trust anything 'foreign' or mysterious, stick with what you know.  Also, due to her being from outside the USA she can be shown to have more of a sexual appetite than the American women can as they aren't allowed to have them in their culture.  There's one scene in particular when this is prominent, on the night of their wedding.

As she slides gently down the door, knowing her husband is on the other side, she gently caresses the wood and just as she thinks to reach for the handle a panther's scream is heard and she sits sadly and alone beside the door. One idea that I've found in David J. Hogan's book about sexuality in horror films is that Irena is "tormented not only by her peculiar talent but by an implied fear of sex".  This suggests that though she is frightened by her past, she still suffers from the cultures disapproval of sexual desire and can do nothing but try to stay strong.

Moving away from the narrative and into more of the suggestion. I can't review this film without mentioning the gorgeous use of lighting.  Visually, much like a Film Noir, it uses strong shadows and contrasting light to create the horror of suggestion.  My favourite scene is the one in which Irena stalks her husbands new love through a park.  The use of the sounds of two sets of footsteps and the bars of shadow and light dividing the pavement allowed the director create a moment in which you're watching both women walking and then all of a sudden one disappears.  A similar tone is created when Irena stalks the woman at her swimming pool, Sharon Packer accurately describes this as a "delicately handled shadow scene", one so successful that Val Lewton was then renowned for it.

This film was a pleasure to watch, although I was left feeling cheated for Irena, despite the cultural circumstances, she was less of a predator to her husband than the other woman was, atleast he wasn't married when she fell in love with him, but I digress. Cat People is a film that was visually stunning and chilling too, despite its age.

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