Julien and Clémence Bouin live at the end of what had once been a pretty street in Courbevoie, a Paris suburb. The retired couple, a former typesetter and an acrobat, hardly speak to each other, eat separate meals, sleep in separate beds; Clémence wonders whether it is her pronounced limp, the result of a circus accident, that accounts for Julien’s coldness. She recalls moments when they were young and in love.
Well, maybe they still are, beneath contemptuous façades. From Georges Simenon’s novel Pierre Granier-Deferre has made a superlative film. What is The Cat about? That depends on how one interprets the demolition that noisily attends to the Bouins’ dilapidated neighborhood, where sterile high-rises nearby have replaced trees, and Julien worries that boys in the street will harm his beloved cat once Clémence, jealous, has let him out. If all one sees is the projection of an elderly couple’s antagonism, the film isn’t about much; but if one sees instead the passing of a grace and a humanity from France, indeed, from the Western world, the film is monumental—and nearly intolerably moving. Julien is the way he is, the film suggests, because the world he knew and felt comfortable in, along with his youth, has crumbled.
Granier-Deferre relegates to the right proportion the wrecking ball’s assaults and, indoors, provides stunning closeups of Julien’s pet, a silent, curious witness to the distressing marital battles that will cost him his life.
Jean Gabin and Simone Signoret both won acting prizes at Berlin for their work here. Signoret’s Clémence, one of the “walking wounded,” comes uncomfortably close to suggesting Joan Crawford, but Granier-Deferre scores a visual coup with a cut from the cat’s eyes to Signoret’s catlike eyes. Meanwhile, Gabin is phenomenal as Julien—shrewd, lively, heartrending.
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