Courbevoie (France), 1971. Julien Bouin, a former typographist, and his wife Clemence, who used to perform in a circus, hardly talk to each other in their small house, soon to be demolished...
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Courbevoie (France), 1971. Julien Bouin, a former typographist, and his wife Clemence, who used to perform in a circus, hardly talk to each other in their small house, soon to be demolished. His cat Greffier being the only one he still gives affection to, he becomes the object of Clemence's anger.Written by
Vincent Merlaud <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Just after the credits (3:30) and just before the end credits (71:21) we see twice the same scene. A stretcher is pushed through an hospital emergency entrance.
The first time, a nurse comes from the right while the stretcher is in the middle of a corridor. She asks an unknown person 'Bouin, ça s'écrit comment ?' answered by 'as you say it B O U I N'. (How do you spell BOUIN).
The second time, the stretcher goes all the way to the back, and turn (and Gabin's face is covered, signaling his death) before the nurse appears, and she says this time 'Julien Bouin, ça s'écrit comment ? See more »
Never had silence been as eloquent as in the first act of "The Cat". Most of the exchanges consist on severe glares, desperate stares and a few thrown written notes, but there's a reason why nothing much is said, we don't need words to feel for the characters, nor to understand their opposite needs and motives.
So, the minimalism is less an artistic license from director Pierre Granier-Deferre than the authentic, true-to-life translation of marital boredom, carried by two actors who didn't need dialogues to shine: they had faces, and what faces! With the solid and sensitive presence of veteran actor Jean Gabin and blue-eyed Simone Signoret who, at 49, looked ten years older, the hardest part was over. Indeed, seeing these two living monuments, act, react and sometimes, interact, was a soul-haunting spectacle by itself. Yet, quoting Gabin, star-system was over: even his presence of Signoret's wouldn't have been enough to justify a film if there wasn't some reason-to-be.
And that's "The Cat"'s offering: a powerful statement about marriage or the effect time has on the life of a former typewriter and an acrobat who had a limp from a youth accident. A few bucolic flashbacks (contrasting with the bleak tone of the first act) show a then-youthful couple that made love on the grass after romantic motorcycle rides, to finally surrender, thirty years later, to routine. It seems that whatever gave a spice to their life has turned sour and the house that was once looking onto a charming neighborhood became the sole survivor of urban expansion, and soon-to-be destroyed by ominous bulldozers. The buildings' destruction is a leitmotif of powerful value; it is not the house but the marriages' foundations that are obviously at stakes.
In fact, the whole film is full of metaphorical symbolism, one that never feels forced as it is naturally inserted in the story, starting with the titular animal. The cat is an ordinary alley cat, not ugly but not exceptional either, and as soon as Julien Bouin finds it, it's literally love at first sight: the animal becomes his provider and repository of feelings, much to Lucienne's devastating jealousy. This is a woman abandoned by her husband, they live in the same house, share the same rooms, but they live in separate lives, the cat put the final nail in the coffin of their lost love, that glee in Julien's eyes with the cat on his knees is one she'll never get, and she can't resign herself.
In fact, she has nothing against the cat, she even likes it but the poor animal reflects the heart nuisance the marriages turned to, and will trigger the chain of events that will lead to the heartbreaking final act. The film is told in flashback and this is the right choice because it leaves most of the powerful moments near the end so that the cat doesn't steal the actors' thunder. It is just a cause but not an end: the core of the film is the tragedy of a relationship that is so fragile that any blow can make it collapse, but as the story moves forward, we feel that the bigger tragedy is that it never does. Maybe divorces or separations have become such common practices that we can't understand why the two never envisioned that option, it is even questioned in the film when Julien goes to his old mistress, a brothel manager, played by Annie Cordy.
And these dialogues with the mistress are integral to the comprehension of Julien's mysterious personality; he has such ugly words about his wife that the mistress doesn't understand why he doesn't leave her. Well, the answer is in the question, Julien can't prevent himself from talking about his wife, she's the center of his thoughts, as mean as they are, at least, they exist. Marriage seems like a plane in a storm, he's aboard and can do nothing about it. But Lucienne needs love and in one of the film's emotional outbursts, she says she wants a cat, too, to get her share of tenderness, and then she starts meowing hysterically, this is how desperate it is. Julien puts the final blow by commenting her awful looks when she's upset.
But does he fool us? All through the film, we suspect that his heart is not devoid of feelings, the passion has just been diluted in the disillusion of time and boredom and he can't find a proper way to express it, maybe he doesn't know it himself. The film doesn't really provide answers, it just shows a reality that couples can relate to, even I who's been married for five years contemplate a same sort of existential block sometimes, and being younger than the couple is scarier because I wonder if the film can't work like a warning. But then again, this is not just about marriage but the effect of times on relationships. Julien and Lucienne, as old as they are, used to have dreams, and weren't just blue-collar workers so that life would be ahead of them after retirement, they had interesting jobs and they had no kids. Future couldn't look gloomier.
They say marriage is an institution, well the film reminded me of this term coined in "The Shawshank Redemption" : being 'instutionalized', which means getting used to the very walls that used to scare us, because time has a double effect: it erodes relationships, but also build our resistance to their erosion, the tragedy of "The Cat" is that the effect is different from the husband to the wife, but the greatness of the film lies in the final minutes, and the way it toys with the sicknesses of the two leads, that can be both summarized as 'heart' conditions.
I'm not sure I'd feel ready to watch "The Cat" again, but I know there will come a time, if I grow old enough, where I'll think about it, again.
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