Recently I saw a film addressing issues of immigration and assimilation, Inch’Allah Dimanche (2001) by France’s Yamina Benguigui, herself an Algerian immigrant. It is an inferior piece of work, with perhaps only a bit of feminist interest to commend it. Writing about it, though, reminded me of a far better film that deals with similar matter. It is Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 horror classic Cat People.
A great commercial success, partly because it is truly frightening (unlike, say, Paul Schrader’s sour, misbegotten 1982 remake), and also because, unexpectedly for its time and place, it is deliciously erotic, Cat People isn’t often discussed as having anything to do with issues of immigration and assimilation. For the record, Tourneur himself was an immigrant, having been born in Paris and having come to the U.S. in the mid-1910s. (His father was Maurice Tourneur, who made popular silent films in Hollywood.) Born in Fresno, California, the author of Cat People’s script, DeWitt Bodeen, also wrote the screen adaptation of I Remember Mama (George Stevens, 1948), a somewhat labored but, intermittently, warmly entertaining immigration saga about a Norwegian family in San Francisco, coincidentally, at about the time the Tourneur family moved to California. About five years earlier, Cat People’s legendary producer, Val Lewton, born Vladimir Leventon in the Crimea, moved with his mother and sister to the States from Berlin, to which they had moved a few years earlier.
Irena Dubrovna has made few acquaintances in New York City, where she now lives. One day at the zoo she meets Oliver Reed, who is as drawn to the Serbian-born beauty as she is drawn to the sleek panther she is sketching. They fall in love instantly and marry. But something is not right with Irena, who remains deeply attached to Serbia, its superstitious legends and tragic history. Fearful that passion might turn her into a murderous cat, Irena beseeches Ollie for patience while their marriage continues unconsummated. Sex, it turns out, isn’t life’s only passion. As Ollie turns to co-worker Alice Moore for moral support, Irena’s jealousy, unleashed, transforms her into a feline monster, placing at risk Alice, whom she stalks, Ollie and Dr. Louis Judd, the psychiatrist who has misdiagnosed Irena’s condition, his dogged rationalism mistaking a sick soul for a sick mind.
This is a fantastic story, of the grand sort that invites its reincarnation as a symbol-studded opera/ballet. Tourneur, though, treated his outrageous material soberly, realistically, lending touches of the surreal to such pivotal moments as the wedding banquet in a public eatery, where a tall, dark woman with the eyes of a cat approaches the seated Irena and speaks to her in Serbian, saying something that strikes our untutored American ears as possibly meaning “My sister.” Irena wants to live in the present and have a future with her bridegroom; but something is always pulling her back into the past—the domain of nightmare, surely, but nightmare that, recurring since childhood, has become, for her, uneasy comfort: dark, terrifying though familiar terrain.
Cat People is a werewolf film, except that the character who lives in two worlds, one darkly fantastic, one real, is a woman, not a man, and what she turns into isn’t a wolf but a cat. In a bravura opening shot, Tourneur—what an economical artist this is!—establishes the identity of cat and Irena and associates the fantastic and real worlds each with the other. Starting on the panther in its cage at the zoo, the camera measuredly withdraws to reveal Irena, standing, sketching it. Thus the two figures, panther and person, are inextricably linked by the shifting frame of the image caused by the movement of the camera, as the object of attention, the panther, maintains a part of our field of vision, which is, in effect, enlarged to include also Irena, the one for whom the panther is the object of attention. This identification of each with the other consigns the stability of subject and object to the shifting breezes of dreamlike fluidity. Which is which? The cat’s pacing back and forth behind its bars—the cage that, later on, Irena will herself unlock—presents an image of capture, confinement, dislocation, unnatural environment, distress, dissatisfaction. By contrast, Irena remains still, except for the movement of her arm as her hand proceeds with the sketch (an attempt to capture the animal’s likeness); but, captivated by the captive cat, she herself is its reflection. It is her feelings as an immigrant, a citizen on foreign soil, that the caged, pacing panther projects.
Reciprocation between cat and woman, animal and artist, sets the stage for Irena’s first encounter with Ollie. It is a remarkable moment. Dissatisfied with her sketch, Irena crunches it and misses the refuse receptacle into which she tries to toss it. Silently Ollie does three things that extend or “complete” what Irena herself has just done: he picks up the ruined portrait; he puts it into the receptacle; with his facial expression he chides Irena for littering. (Subsequently he properly disposes of another sketch of hers she is about to toss away.) Without a trace of defensiveness, Irena silently acknowledges Ollie, what he has done and what he is “telling” her. In short, it is a scene of reciprocation, only in this instance between two strangers, a man and a woman, rather than between the woman and a cat. This establishes reciprocation as a unifying procedure in the film. Moreover, the dreamlike silence in which the reciprocation between Irena and Ollie unfolds connects the realism of the moment to the realm of the fantastic, especially as this instance follows hard the connection the camera has established between Irena and beast.
Cat People proceeds to document Irena’s sense of being lost in her new home, that is to say, New York, that is to say, the United States. Nowhere is it mentioned that the likely cause for Irena’s relocation is the Second World War, which is ripping apart Europe. (Serbia fought on the Allied side; Croatia, on the Axis side.) Throughout, then, war remains the elephant in the film—or should I say the monstrous cat? However, the film’s procedure of reciprocation yields a brace of intriguing matter on the domestic front. Irena’s unease as an immigrant reflects her American reception, or at least what she worries is the way that the natives feel and think about her. Ollie embodies this ambiguous reception. He starts off by not quite chastising her for bringing something unwanted to American soil, which the litter (at least to Irena) symbolizes. When Irena invites him into her apartment, she immediately apologizes for her heavy use of fragrance there; Ollie reciprocates by describing the perfume as “warm and living,” signaling his attraction to Irena. But then there is their unconsummated marriage. Shorn of the film’s procedure of reciprocation, we have here a man showing saintly patience in an unfortunate situation involving his wife’s fearfulness and distress. When we apply the procedure, though, we may be surprised to confront something very different. For, while it is true that Irena is not having sex with her husband, it is equally true that her husband is not having sex with her. When we coordinate this fact with another, that Ollie’s marriage to Irena appears to be, at least in part, an unconscious attempt on his part to avoid a sexual relationship with Alice, we arrive at an astonishing result: the foreigner—Irena—is being “blamed,” that is, made responsible for the less than satisfying outcome of the marriage. The ongoing issue of marital nonconsummation, then, speaks to the immigrant’s concern that she or he is being made a scapegoat—a concern to which time and again social and political realities have become attached. Indeed, by a stroke of thematic clarity, not mere coincidence, Ollie’s “patience” becomes exhausted at the precise point that Irena is ready to have the marriage consummated. It is at that moment that Ollie tells her he wants a divorce instead! Upon further reflection, and with Alice’s assistance, Ollie decides on a different course of action to which the nonconsummation legally entitles him: having the marriage annulled—as though it never existed; as though Irena never existed. Ollie’s ambivalence again kicks in once he decides that if Irena is as mentally ill as Dr. Judd says and, as a result, he is going to have her committed to a mental institution, he ought not to abandon her until she is well—and, of course, in the meantime, while Irena is away in the “cage” of an asylum, the issue of making the marriage whole would never arise. This aspect of the film compellingly projects the immigrant’s fear of legal vulnerability, that at any moment forces beyond the immigrant’s control can be brought to bear to make her or him “disappear.” If the panther is the cat that Irena fears she is, it is also the cat that Ollie unintentionally helps her to become by helping to enforce her status and mindset as immigrant.
Besides being charming and gorgeous, Simone Simon, more like a kitten than a grown cat,* gives a wonderful performance—at least the equal of her turns in Jean Renoir’s La bête humaine (1938) and Max Ophüls’s Le plaisir (1951). (Simon also was an immigrant here—like Renoir and Ophüls, as a matter of fact, a temporary one because of the war.) She provides the key element for my favorite shot in the film: Irena, naked in her bathtub, dissolving into tears, drops of water glistening on her back—an example of the kind of delicate detail that Tourneur would conjure for the sake of a (paradoxically) dreamlike realism: the essence of erotica. Cinema would not again show so glorious a back until Luis Buñuel, bless his memory, applied a salutary whip to a dreaming Séverine Serizy in Belle de Jour (1967).
* For me, Simone Simon, not Brigitte Bardot, was the preeminent French “sex kitten”—and Simone Signoret, the full-grown cat.
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