Paul Schrader’s Cat People could not be more 80’s. It’s equal parts mysticism and hokem. It takes itself ridiculously seriously, or at least it pretends to, which is actually part of its charm, but its also quite mental. It’s without doubt a failed experiment in something, yet as we know in cinema, failed experiments – particularly by self involved auteurs are always the best.
Schrader wears his repression, his internalised anger, his guilt and his misanthropic violence on his sleeve, via his script for Taxi Driver, and through his own films like Affliction, First Reformed, or even Auto Focus. He loves men wrestling with their angst and then taking it out on everyone unfortunate enough to be around them.
But a curious thing happened to Schrader: The 1980’s. Like many, this decade is where things got weird, and kind’ve sexy. Wrong sexy.
In 1980 he directed Richard Gere (Days Of Heaven) as an escort in American Gigolo, a weird soulless affair of surface titillation that leaves you feeling terrible. It’s amazing. Two years later comes Cat People, the first film he directed without having written (though apparently he did some uncredited rewriting). And again it’s remarkable. But probably not in the way that he intended.
Nastassja Kinski (Paris Texas) is Irena Gallier, who arrives in New Orleans to meet up with her long lost brother, a pretty over the top Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange). Whilst McDowell’s Paul Gallier is uncomfortably familiar with Irena, he also hides a secret, which is hinted at on her first night in his house when he leaps catlike upon her bed to watch her sleep. Schrader of course was always going to get his themes of sexual repression, angst and violence into the film somehow, but with a female protagonist it’s actually quite fascinating.
Moments of abrupt horror exist alongside absurdity. Ed Begley Jr’s (Meet The Applegates) nasty zoo keeper looses an arm to a big cat, blood splurting over Kinski’s white shoes. When startled by curator John Heard (C.H.U.D) sketching the cat at the zoo Kinski flees before leaping impossibly high into a tree. Somehow this doesn’t stop him offering her a job and a place in his bed. Obviously the key here is Kinski’s Irena, a virgin who senses the danger of succumbing to the lust building within her loins – even if she doesn’t quite understand it. In this sense she’s a prisoner of her own sexuality, a caged beast just like a big cat at the zoo. It’s ludicrous, sexist and fascinating, as Kinski spends the second half of the film in various states of undress as she attempts to negotiate the dangers of her own body, and the lustful advances of both Heard and her brother who is convinced that the only safe sex for both of them is with each other.
Cat People tries to have its cake and eat it too. It’s not exactly subtle. The metaphors slap you across the head, hard. But again that’s the fun. This is not a typical gritty Schrader realistic representation, this is a fantasy world, a bizarre erotic fever dream of gratuitous horror and po-faced seriousness. Sex is the monster here. Everyone wants it, but it can tear you apart. Literally.
Few things in this world are sexier though than Giorgio Moroder’s (Midnight Express) music and his moody electro score is strangely melancholy and remarkably poignant. Whilst he had previously provided the soundtrack to Schrader’s American Gigolo, Cat People feels like their crowning achievement together. It’s mystical, feverish and oh so 80’s, particularly when paired with some of the lush visual imagery. The presence of David Bowie’s baritone vocals, firstly moaning evocatively during the opening prologue, and then during the end credits with the iconic Cat People (Putting Out Fire) adds an additional layer of moody exoticness – a track also used to great effect by Tarantino in Inglorious Basterds. Every time Moroder’s music appears on screen you just sink further into this strangely silly hyper erotic 80’s mysticism until you can no longer tell fantasy from reality.