Part of our continuing partnership with the online film journal cléo, which guest programs a film to watch on MUBI in the United States. In conjunction, we'll be hosting an exclusive article by one of their contributors. This month Eleni Deacon writes on Ramon Zürcher's debut feature The Strange Little Cat.
Every home has its own weekend feeling. The way the breakfast-time light hits a specific patch of the kitchen floor. The sounds of siblings alternately joking then bugging each other. A sleepy quiet that sinks into the afternoon. The Strange Little Cat, Ramon Zürcher's slice-of-life debut feature, tracks a cozy Saturday at the home of a tight-knit German family. With two grown children visiting from out of town, their mother prepares for a group dinner later that night. The details of the day are routine: grocery shopping, listless cigarette breaks, a game of Connect Four. But while nothing out of the ordinary occurs, Zürcher isn't simply celebrating banality. Instead, he reflects on the enigmas and idiosyncrasies that peek through even the most mundane afternoons.
Not that we're privy to what those riddles actually are. Because although The Strange Little Cat offers a glimpse into the intimate life of one family, it's also suggestive of the limitations inherent to that intimacy. The family members enter and exit, running errands, fixing the washing machine and sharing anecdotes from the previous week. As the film progresses, the kitchen becomes more and more congested: new relatives arrive, adding their opinions and laughter to the already-crowded get-together. They're a tight-knit bunch, literally. And Zürcher's decision to never entirely clarify who's who—how these people are all related is not explicitly addressed—contributes to the sense of tangled and profound familiarity.
Still, distance wedges its way in. On several occasions, Zürcher's camera finds the mother immersed in moments of troubling solitude. While on a shopping run, she stops for lunch alone at a dull fast-food restaurant. During dinner, she escapes to the kitchen, where she quietly drinks a glass of milk. In the film's final shot, the mother is solo in the kitchen, staring out the window with what seems like a look of intense emptiness. Or maybe she's just tired. Or maybe it's nothing at all. The Strange Little Cat hints at discontent in her interior life, but never comes near confirming or even exploring her perspective beyond the stories she is willing to tell her family. Repeatedly, Zürcher films the mother from behind as she stands at the kitchen counter, and these shots of her back imply that we, too, are shut out from her inner world. There is a sense that the mother's private thoughts and feelings form the crux of this family's story—but the nature of those feelings is deliberately withheld.
This purposefulness defines Zürcher's first feature. Although The Strange Little Cat observes a family in its natural habitat,it does not aim to recreate the world as it is, but rather choreographs a family's comings and goings with precise composition. Throughout the film, the camera never moves, fixating instead on whatever activity is happening within the frame at a particular moment of the day. The stationary set-ups enhance The Strange Little Cat's theatrical undertones. Zürcher's lens does not provide a window into their world, but a view of their stage.
Which only stokes the inkling that there is more to this family that what's being seen. Within the household, the characters play their roles: sister, brother, aunt, uncle, cousin, mother. The film's theatrical construction, however, serves as a reminder that these roles do not represent the entirety of each person. In his investigation of one family's life, Zürcher does not omit the reality that even members of the closest families inevitably retain their own mysteries.