Far from perfect, but still scratches a unique itch.
To live the strange but sensual 1982 Paul Schrader movie cat people must have an illuminating insight into the mind of the acclaimed screenwriter and director. A remake of the enduring 1942 RKO Radio Pictures film of the same name, it ditches much of that original work’s subtlety to lean towards the more sinister instead. It ends up showing what interests Schrader from the macabre to the erotic that soon intertwine. The result is often fascinating, but sometimes tedious work that is not always as exciting as it should be. Its leader, a committed Nastasja Kinski, even expressed some rather mixed thoughts about the movie and how she’s been portrayed in it over the years. However, there’s something that still manages to get under your skin and stay there long after we’ve heard the film’s final roar.
The film opens with a prologue set in an unknown community many years ago that serves as a clue to what’s to come when a close-up of one of the characters merges with that of Irena. Gallier (Kinski) who traveled to New Orleans. . She is there to reconnect with her brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell) who is now involved in a church after growing up on psychiatric wards. They are orphans, so Irena was raised in foster care and thus largely sheltered from the world. Paul seems to be a little too friendly towards her and subsequently disappears. At the same time, a sex worker goes to a small motel where she is attacked and nearly killed by a black panther. The next day, a group of zoologists comes to extract the animal safely. This includes Oliver (John heard) who performs a daring but clumsy stunt by climbing a ladder outside the motel window to tranquilize the panther from the outside. We soon begin to realize that this isn’t a normal panther as it’s actually a transformed Paul who appears to become an animal when he gives in to his sexual desires. This will cause trouble not only for him, but also for his sister who has a similar power that she has yet to discover.
Unaware of this, Irena initially seems concerned about Paul leaving, but begins wandering the city and stumbles upon a zoo where she stays long after it closes to observe the now captured panther in captivity. She seems drawn to it, but isn’t quite able to figure out why. This is where she meets Oliver who chases her at first and suddenly finds her in a tree. You know, just something we all do when we get nervous. After this rocky introduction, Irena is offered a job at the zoo’s gift shop and confides in her new colleague Alice (Annette O’Toole) that she is a virgin by drinking. There is tension between the two as Oliver has a clear romantic interest in Irene, although he has also been involved with Alice. To make matters worse in the workplace, one of their colleagues Joe (Ed Begley Jr.) then has his arm ripped off by the panther when he gets too close and dies in a pool of his own blood. Before Oliver can put down the panther, the animal escapes and Paul then appears in human form to make advances on Irena. Oh yeah, there’s some incestuous undercurrents in this movie for all of you out there looking for something to hold you over until the next one. Dragon House season.
What follows is a journey centered around Irena’s sexual awakening and self-discovery that also risks turning her into a panther just like Paul. The rules of the movie are that having sex with a human means you turn into said panther and to turn back you have to commit an act of murder. We find out that Paul has apparently been doing this for quite a while and hiding the torn remains of the bodies in the basement. The police mistakenly view him as a serial killer who feeds his victims a panther, as opposed to the much more haunting truth that he is both man and animal. Stuck in this difficult situation, Irena finds herself with the choice of the life she wants to lead. She can either be celibate in order to maintain her humanity, or, if she wants to have sex, kill someone every time she does in order to get back.
As she continues to nurture a relationship with Oliver, the person she was when we first met her begins to transform into someone new who seems capable of almost anything. This is all more than a little messy and opens up a lot of reading on what Schrader is trying to say about desire. Is sex worth punishing and will erode the person who participates in it? This observation is certainly interesting to consider in the context of how the director was actually involved in an affair with Kinski while filming the movie which she later completed before he could profess his love for her. Or is it meant to be an extended metaphor for how society will not only misunderstand but pursue those who embrace their desire?
Honestly, it could be both or neither. Indeed, it could be that Schrader and everyone working on the film except Kinski were on drugs as he told Peter Biskind for his 1998 book. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls on “New Hollywood”. Arguments could be made both ways, as the film is chaotic in a way that invites conversation. The conclusion with Irena now stuck between her two states of existence is unexpected because the story does not end with her being tracked down and killed. Instead, she comes to Oliver and begs him to have sex with her so she can return to her animal form. The last extended sex scene between the two has her tied up on a bed. This is done narratively so she doesn’t kill him when she transforms again, but it’s also more than a little evil.
The result of their eventual consummation of their carnal pleasures is that she is both confined to her panther form and detained at the zoo for him to visit. It’s surprising and more than a little awkward in what it represents for the film’s overriding musings on sexual liberation. What’s unwavering is how distinct it feels, both as a work of adaptation and a cinematic reflection of its charismatic creator who himself was caught up in his own desires while building it. Even though not everything works out as well as one might hope, it gave us one hell of a song at the end david bowie which encapsulates the film wavelength better than anything else.