WHEN THE CAT'S AWAY (CHACUN CHERCHE SON CHAT) (France, 1996) *** 1/2
"Cat" was planned as a short, the genuine story of a friend who before leaving on vacation left her cat with an old lady, Madame Renee. When the young woman returned to Paris, the cat had disappeared. Madame Renee enlisted many senior citizen friends to help the girl find her feline.
During preliminary work on the short, Klapisch, having "discovered all these wonderful people" decided to expand the movie into a feature. The result is a wonderful picture, much of it improvised yet showing no signs of the original project having been stretched by force. It is like a short story that is turned into a really good novel.
Protagonist Chloe is played by Garance Clavel. She had been in just one TV movie before this. I think that whoever chose her uncommon given name was propitiating the Gods of Cinema. The magnificent actress known simply as Arletty had played the unforgettable role of Garance in that classic of classics, "Children of Paradise" (1945).
Chloe, in her early twenties, is a make-up artist for fashion models being photographed. The work is demanding, the bosses are hard task master. She badly needs a vacation, her first in three years. She lives in the Bastille neighborhood, a popular area (in the sense of many working class dwellers) that has been undergoing major upgrades in the last decades. She saves on rent by sharing a small apartment in a big old building with Michel, a gay friend.
Any family she may have is not mentioned. Her only relative is her furry cat Gris-Gris (literally Gray-Gray in French). When someone asks why that name for a black cat, Chloe does not explain that Gris-Gris means an African amulet or fetish. (The film has several connections to Africa, but like all else, nothing is underlined).
There are no men either in Chloe's private life. The movie does not go into explanations, such as timidity or lack of opportunities. It's a common fact that many a person is caught inside singleness which brings solitude and sadness. Among the many nice aspects of the movie is that Chloe is just an ordinary person, not especially beautiful though appealing, quiet and very much alone.
Before she leaves for the sea, she must find someone to take care of the cat. Her roommate flatly refuses (He's also irritated because he just split with his current boyfriend). Chloe asks around. In a very French way everyone has a suggestion. She ends up by leaving Gris-Gris with a neighbor she did not know existed, a hoarse-voiced little old lady with her own mini-zoo of cats.
Cut to a single picture of Chloe, alone by the sea, in a flash that compresses all of the vacation. It is a humorous bit with a melancholy subtext. It is also a vivid example of skillful, no-nonsense, economical film editing. All of "Cat"'s techniques are intelligently simple and ungimmicky. In a later sequence the movie cuts from someone dangling from a roof to is being safe on the ground. The intervening rescue by firemen is skipped. This saves production money and eliminates unwanted suspense and dramatics.
When Chloe goes to pick up Gris-Gris, a desolate Madame Renee tells her "Your cat has vanished. Believe me, it's never happened to me before. I looked all over." The search begins. Some acquaintances and some strangers-until-now help Chloe with Lost Kitty posters. She meets Jamel (Dzhah-MEL), a nice, slow-witted handyman of Arabic parentage. He becomes her assistant.
Diminutive Madame Renee mobilizes a fascinating, real-life network of older women. They flood Chloe with advice and suggestions, often make hilarious phone calls or subject her to solemn, "important" questionnaires.
To say that the search involves picaresque adventures would be hyperbolic. Mr.Klapisch is working in realistic, not Hollywood-fictional style. To begin with, the movie's Madame Renee is real. She is the very same person who had lost the real cat of the real Chloe. Most other characters are real people too, not professional actors. The neighborhood is real, the streets, cafes, shops are real as is the battalion of lady-searchers, all friends of Madame Renee. So is the commotion about Gris-Gris, Paris being Cat City. You can't push realism much farther. (Yes, kitty is finally located).
The movie's catchy English title is misleading, as one might expect it to develop into a "The Mice Will Play" situation.The French title literally means "Everyone Is Looking for her/his Cat" but at a deeper level implies that all people are after something. It could anything: money, love, sex, the pursuit of happiness and its bluebird. Jamel, for example, though not ill-treated, can be the butt of some jokes. He needs a friend and finds one in Chloe.
In her wanderings, Chloe herself meets and discovers new people and places. It's not always positive, but the possibility of friendships or relationships is in the air. In the process, along with the young woman we see and feel the ever-changing face of Paris and society. A giant crane is demolishing a church. Old buildings are about to be torn down for more upscale edifices. Tenants are being evicted. Old people are being replaced by modern, often swinging youth. Familiar pop-and-mom shops are giving way to impersonal modern facilities. Nostalgic Madame Renee and her cronies treat us with sweet, often humorous running commentary on the unsettling changes.
Director Klapisch has assimilated beautifully the populist French cinema of the 1930s (minus its romantic, fate-driven darkness), the film-rules-breaking New Wave, the naturalism of today's Young European or American Cinema. He communicates feelings with sympathy but without militancy, theatrics, drama, overt sentimentality, or the touristy picturesqueness of romantic views of Paris. The.local color is unforced. Klapisch subtly and unraucously evokes the past and the changing times. He also shows us today's racial mixture in a working class that may not always live in total harmony but does practice peaceful -- sometimes friendly --coexistence.
(Note a pun that may reflect the mentality of the filmmakers. The real name of the cat who plays Gris-Gris is Arapimou. The widely-traveled French easily pick up foreign words. In Greek, Agapi means Love so that the expression Agapimou means My Love. Arapi means a black African, which makes Arapimou mean My Black).
Per a French saying, misfortune has its good side. In this well balanced movie, a misfortune (the temporary absence of Gris-Gris) leads to a search that expands Chloe's horizons and will lead to positive changes. On the street she even eyes repeatedly an unknown young man. By chance, she later has a quick, happy fling with him. It turns immediately into a downer but still, the bottom line for Chloe is in her been meeting other people too. Among them is a previously anonymous neighbor now being evicted. At the end, Chloe, getting involved in local life, is among those who help the man move his belongings. Earlier, he had been a sad widower. Now there's a sudden, discreet yet promising spark between him and Chloe. The last scene is one of hope as she runs along the streets with a beaming smile on her face.
"Cat" has excellent English subtitles. Although I find no credits for the music's organizer, the soundtrack is one of the best, a rich mixture of genres popular among the French: U.S. and French rap, salsa, African songs, rock, a street band, oldies and more. Plus Chopin.