Film Review: Cat People & Curse of the Cat People

by Charlotte Dovey
Delacroix [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“Tiger and Snake”
Note: This image is a good illustration of the film because the cat fights the serpent (evil).

The main character, Irena, has a cat spirit and transforms into a panther.  Of course, calling a woman a cat is a well-known, and somewhat disparaging term with rather nasty sexual implications.  It is also, interestingly, a slang term for a man who is interesting (unusual or artistic) and self-possessed.   In the opening scene, Irena is taken for an artist by an intrigued love-interest, and she seems aloof and unimpressed at first, even cool. 

When she is alone, before he appears to her, she is happy sketching the panther behind the bars at the zoo.  The sign in the zoo reads, “Let no one say, and say it to your shame, That all was beauty here, until you came.”  But this is what happens to the would-be-husband, Oliver; he sees beauty (Irena), and is intrigued because she is different and artistic. Once Oliver, whom she marries not long into the story, enters the picture, Irena’s self-possession fades.  After the marriage, and once he feels that he possesses her, he no longer sees that beauty.  Rather, what he regarded as interesting he begins to reinterpret as insanity, oddness, dishonesty, and feminine/feline slyness. 

Irena dreams of King John of Serbia (she is Serbian) who put the “witches” of her land “to the sword,” but “the wisest and most wicked escaped to the mountains.”  Irena’s psychological problems (she is not insane, but she does have fears) stems from her interpretation of these events.  Rather than understand that the people who escaped were the wisest and also happened to be regarded wicked because they were witches, she seems to understand this to mean that the wisest escaped and the wicked also escaped.  She seems to think that she descended from these wicked people – she regards herself as wicked because others had done so. 

Irena loves Oliver, but fears that she may turn into a cat if they are physically intimate.  It could be that she fears harming Oliver, but cats do not harm their mates in this manner.  It seems more likely that what Irena fears is that her physicality is connected with her animality, rather than her rational or moral nature, and she believes that this is wickedness.  She wants to be a good person, a good and loving wife, and if she believes this is bad/wicked she would harm her husband by allowing herself to be wicked/physical.  Many little girls are told such stories and if they work hard and are lucky they may overcome it, as Irena tries to do.

Irena does not stop to think that if she is a cat person, such people have cat spirits, and are no more intrinsically wicked than cats.  It is part of a cat nature to hunt, to mate, to protect themselves, but this does not make them evil, and no matter how much others (or even the cats themselves) may want to change their nature, it is not possible to do so.

The husband and the psychiatrist, Dr. Judd wish to change Irena’s nature.  Because she loves her husband, and has been told that the doctor is qualified to help her, she believes them, rather than listening to her own (better) nature.  (Her husband seems to understand this better after Irena’s death, as seen in Curse of the Cat People, as I address shortly).  They also do not believe her – they continually accuse her of not being frank, obscuring the truth, denying the truth, or of being delusional.

It is important that Irena, in her cat persona, only attacks Dr. Judd.  I think that Dr. Judd is the real predator in this film, the person with the truly evil nature.  He is supposed to be Oliver’s friend but tries to seduce his wife, who is also his patient – medical ethicists would have a field day with this man.  When Irena rebuffs his advances, Dr. Judd begins to call her insane and talk about institutionalizing her because she has no grip on reality.  Isn’t this what used to happen to wives to refused to sleep with their husbands?  Irena was right to fight him off.  It is not clear, however, that she intended to kill him, as in the struggle he tried to kill the cat – it could be seen as self-defence.

She does stalk Alice, but it is not clear that her intention is to kill Alice rather than simply scare her off.  It is Alice who fears that Irena wishes to kill her, but as Dr. Judd points out, that could be her own conscience (guilt) speaking.  Alice is undermining Irena’s marriage and home, and Irena is right to want to defend herself and her home from invaders.  Hence, she frightens Alice but at no point does she actually harm her or anyone other than Dr. Judd.

What about unleashing the panther at the zoo?  It is perhaps true that Irena set that cat free on purpose to kill, but it was she, then the cat itself, who are killed.  If anything, she unleashes death upon herself so she can have peace at last.  And her husband has also cried out, to God, and with cross in hand, that she should leave them in peace.  (The name Irena means peace.)

This brings us to Curse of the Cat People

Oliver has betrayed Irena, an emotionally present and loving wife, by seeking comfort elsewhere (with Alice) and rejecting Irena (as he sends her away in the museum to spend time with Alice, then later tells her that he wants to divorce).  He betrays his daughter, Amy, in a similar way; he does not trust her or appreciate her own nature but rather punishes her for being who she is.  He has a pattern of behavior that he is unaware of and must come to terms with.

At a school meeting, both parents are critical of their daughter’s lack of artistic talent, focusing instead on her imagination, and instead of applauding it, Oliver refers to her as “moody” and “sickly.”  These are not signs of nurturing parents.  Rather, they encourage their daughter to conform to other children, even though one of the children likes to torment animals and killed Amy’s butterfly “friend.” 

The parents are also not consistent with their daughter; they confuse her in terms of establishing acceptable behavior and then punish her for not understanding.  The father told Amy, when she was three, that the tree in the garden was a “magic mailbox” but then is harsh to her when she remembers this and tries to mail her birthday invitations in it.  He scolds her for believing this, but then encourages her to make a wish when blowing out her birthday candles.  What does Amy wish for?  She wishes that she could be a good girl; something that her parents have been drilling into her as what she ought to be, then indicating that she does not hit the mark.  The poor girl even ranks her dolls in order of how good they are.  (This resonates with Irena wishing to be good in Cat People – perhaps her own parents confused her and made her feel inadequate in a similar manner.) 

As with Irena, Oliver does not believe Amy, even when she tells the truth.  Rather, when she tells the truth he accuses her of lying.  He is undermining his desire that his daughter should tell the truth – he is encouraging her to lie and punishing her for truth telling.  This could even endanger his daughter’s life, as she seeks security in the house of people who are in fact delusional and/or harmful.

It is only when Oliver realizes that Amy is in danger (as Irena was) that he changes his approach and trust her.  Amy, for her part, stops being in danger when she stops fearing; when Irena appears to her in place of the insane cat woman in the strange old house and Amy approaches her, trusting her as a friend, does the woman soften and treat her as a friend in return.  When it comes to fears, it is interesting that sometimes when we fear we create a reason to fear, and when we stop fearing the reason to fear disappears.

Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“Bacchante with a Panther”
Note: The Bacchante are the priestesses who follow Bacchus, god of wine, fertility, and religious ecstasy/madness: Is Irena mad, or merely a religious devotee? Maybe she would have been better off focusing more on the wine and fertility, and less on the other…

© Copyright 2019, Metamorphorica

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