Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2014 6:33 am 
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Reprinted from 21 April 2013 (SFIFF reviews)

Leon Alan Beiersdorf and the cat in The Strange Little Cat

Kitchen life: choreographed poetry and zaniness of the quotidian

The quiet magic and lurking humor of the quotidian are subtly dramatized in this seamless film about several generations of a good looking family puttering around the kitchen of a Berlin apartment. Two dozen people and creatures come and go, including a black dog, an orange cat, and a moth (which keeps coming back). A rat is also mentioned. Comparisons with Jacques Tati, Michel Gondry, and François Ozon have been made. Zürcher is only 30; the film is only 72 minutes long. Accomplished filmmaking, though conventional expectations are frustrated and the hilarity of Tati is certainly missing. My memory is the sort of obligato of the presiding figure of the kitchen and the film, the unnamed mother played by Jenny Schily, whose Sphinxlike face reminded me of Charlotte Rampling's. For those who can't tune in -- and small English subtitles that vanish in a millisecond may undermine those efforts -- this may seem much ado about nothing. But the originality of the conception and the precision of the execution are unmistakable and critics at the Berlinale ranked this film high.

First a cat loudly whines to be let in, and then that seamlessly morphs into the voice of the youngest child, Clara (Mia Kasalo), who likes to screech at kitchen appliances. Zürcher works with what there is, so there are electric blackouts, a noisy espresso machine, a bottle that magically spins in a pan, and a washing machine, briefly menacing, repaired by a handsome neighbor with whom Schilly's character has a wordless sexual chemistry. There is a shopping list whose orthography is much discussed as a recurring family record of childhood, and people come and go. Zürcher's art is in the smooth choreography of the many people moving around and dodging each other (or kissing later when another group visits for the long-prepared-for dinner that evening), constantly talking, sometimes seen from below, constantly in action, as if naturally, yet with a perfection, a geometrical rhythm, that suggests preparatory diagrams and many rehearsals -- but the effort never shows.

There are recurrent motifs: the moth reappearing, the ginger cat slinking in and out, the dog coming and going, arguments over buttons and shirts, "grandmother's sleeping!" said to quiet noisy children. Cheery music by San Francisco rock trio Thee More Shallows ("a shiny chamber-orchestra affair in sub-Michael Nyman vein" explains Stephen Dalton in Hollywood Reporter) helps keep things light and smooth.

Zürcher is interested in interrelationships and overlappings, both familial and physical. Sometimes people briefly recall a recent incident, which bears this out. For instance Schilly's character recalls going to a movie with grandmother, when a man who sat beside her put his right foot over her left one. She didn't know that it was intentional: maybe he was just too engrossed in the movie to notice he'd done it. When she didn't pull her foot out right away, she was stuck and had to leave it there, as grandmother fell asleep and breathed heavily, making her fear she'd snore. Finally grandmother woke up with a start and she could retract her foot. Zürch sees his scene and perhaps life as a kind of "Twittering Machine" like a Rube Goldberg gadget only less eccentric. He has been for some time and still is a student at the DFFB Berlin film school, and made this film reportedly as a result of a seminar with Béla Tarr, whom he thanks in the credits.

Zürcher was "The first-timer with perhaps the most distinctive sensibility" at Berlin this year, wrote Dennis Lim in the NY Times. His unmistakable talents may show to even better effect in future if he relaxes a little and lets things get simpler, but it seems essential to his effect to give equal weight to everything, people, animals, and objects, "such that nobody and nothing is sidelined," as Charles H. Meyer writes for Cinspect.

Das Merkwürdige Kätzchen, 72 mins., in German, debuted at Berlin. The Swiss-born filmmaker, now resident in Berlin, has made videos. This is his first feature. Originally screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival (25 Apr.-9 May 2013), since the Berlinale this film has been shown in an exceptional number of festivals, at least three dozen, including Cannes and Toronto. This review is republished here as part of coverage of the Film Society of Lincoln Center-Museum of Modern Art series New Directors/New Films showing Tue. 25 Mar. 2014 at 9:00pm at MoMA and Wed. 26 Mar. at 6:30pm at Lincoln Center.

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