Apparently everyone at Sundance has a lot to say about the long-awaited adaptation of the viral New Yorker short story starring Emilia Jones (“CODA”) and Nicholas Braun (Cousin Greg from “Succession”) about a 20-year-old woman, Margot, who beats a mainly text-based one relationship with an older man, Robert, and then goes on an epically bad date with him.
The story by Kristen Roupenian launched a thousand Twitter threads about consent and bad kissers (and ghosts and is it okay to change your mind about having sex with someone mid-act) when it came out in December 2017, as the community began to struggle . with the fallout of #MeToo. (The story was published just two months after the first investigative reports by the New York Times and the New Yorker about Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual abuse.) Listening to audience chatter leaving the premiere Saturday was like hearing these Twitter threads be revived, five years later. Stories of nightmarish dates seem to be as resonant as ever.
In a major departure from Roupenian’s subtle short story, however, the film version of “Cat Person” is unmistakably a darkly comic horror film about the hellscape of modern dating. Director Susanna Fogel (who co-wrote 2019’s “Booksmart”) and writer Michelle Ashford (creator of “Masters of Sex”) have leaned into genre elements, often jumping between reality and Margot’s violent visions of being in constant danger, precisely by virtue of being a woman. Every time home alone at night and every touch of the arm carries the potential for harm, with Heather McIntosh’s score adding a heightened sense of dread.
The film also adds Isabella Rossellini as Margot’s professor, who makes biting comments about the gender dynamics of ants and bees, and a skeptical feminist best friend (Geraldine Viswanatha of “Blockers”) who constantly points out how this relationship seems like bad news, only to get Margot to to ignore all her warnings.
“Michelle and I talked a lot about trying to manifest that internalized fear into an externalized sense of danger,” Fogel said at the post-screening Q&A session, “even though it’s just that feeling of adrenaline, that cortisol flash of danger that I think a lot of women, when they’re in a situation with someone they don’t know, suddenly realize the size of the person they just got into a car with, who they met on Tinder a day ago, and now they’re driving down a freeway at 80 miles an hour.”
The film’s biggest supporters seemed to be those who went into it blind and weren’t too heartbroken by the film’s extreme, worst-case scenario the third act, which plays out what happens after the end of Roupenian’s story, with Robert lashing out at Margot over a text after she pranks him. Nuanced it’s not, but it’s a fascinating reworking of what appeared to be unfilmable source material, taking place mostly over text and in Margot’s head.
The audience responded to the third act with a lot of giddy, nervous laughter and hands over their eyes — but it also gives Robert a chance to say what was going on in his head and grill Margot about what he might have done that was wrong. The man sitting next to me said he appreciated the addition because he had gone through the same kind of emotions, jumping to all kinds of conclusions after a woman he was dating inexplicably pulled out away.
At the center of the film, as with the story, Robert is a truly terrible kisser whom Margot ignores on her way to having sex with him on their first date, even as she becomes increasingly repulsed by him. “Trying to figure out how to kiss badly and extremely badly is a lot of fun for two actors to figure out,” Braun said in a brief interview. “‘Was that weird enough? None? Let’s go weirder.'”
As for the sex scene, director Fogel made the choice to place a different, out-of-body Margot in the room, providing comedic commentary as the action is going down. Jones said that despite the darkness of the material, there were plenty of laughs, even halfway through filming.
Although the film is Margot’s story, Fogel said, she felt the casting of Robert was what had to be the most specific. He’s supposed to be attractive, slightly off and of impressive size, so Margot feels a certain sense of discomfort. “Nick is kind of a magical being because he plays the nerd on TV, but he’s also a heartthrob in the world,” Fogel said. “He’s kind of the perfect mix because you have to believe that she would be interested in him and be able to project onto him. Nick has this chameleon-like quality where in some light you look at him and says, ‘Oh, that’s a leading man,’ and then other times he’s insecure or says the wrong thing, and you can shy away from that attraction.
Braun also felt he related to the awkward nature of the role. “Everyone has been a Robert in one way or another,” he said. “You try really hard, or do a macho thing that will make you more appealing, or dress a certain way to impress a woman. I think I’ve also been awkward and uncomfortable and over-eager, like ‘ Oh god, I want this so bad’ and then you ruin something because it’s so uneven.
Whatever anyone may think of the film and its success as an adaptation (it has yet to be sold for distribution), it seemed to strike a chord with audiences, who kept talking about the gray areas and messiness of dating. of coupling to house parties across Park City that evening. Fogel said in the Q&A that the film was a necessary evolution from the female revenge thriller that rose to prominence after the showdown with men in the late 2010s.
“We wanted to explore ambivalence and the idea that consent is an ongoing thing and people change their minds,” said Fogel, “and there needs to be a place to talk about that in the culture as well. Sometimes you might wish you wasn’t a place when you did all the things that got you to that place. So what? Should the other person know? There’s such pressure to be absolutely sure of what you want and be able to to articulate it, otherwise you lose your ability to escape a situation.”
Reviews have been mixed. Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times criticized its “bludgeoning storytelling” that develops into “a bloody, fiery and spectacularly violent mess”, while Variety admired its “risky” and “bold” third act. Indiewire called it “appropriately excruciating” in a gratuitous way, saying “it will set your teeth on edge and raise the hairs on the back of your neck, just like it should.”
Roupenian said it was only her second time watching the movie and her stomach still hurt after watching. “It made me think about how experiences that feel internal and invisible actually aren’t,” she said. “They’re actually all on her face minute by minute, and yet it’s still so hard to talk about. … Not everyone has the same experience, and that’s shocking and amazing and scary.”