The Strange Little Cat / Ramon Zürcher / 2014 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Off-kelter perspective; Framing and editing
Side Effects: Emotionally vague

The Strange Little Cat is a strange little film, a brisk, unassuming and cleverly choreographed collection of everyday magic. The whistle of a kettle, a peculiarity of afternoon light streaming through a window, these are the occasions that draw the eye of first-time director Ramon Zürcher. They’re not particular dramatic moments, just opportunities to look at familiar things in a new light. They’re moments we all experience, but perhaps not ones we often pause to consider or bother to put into words. Sometimes it takes a film with a pleasantly askew perspective to conjure them in our minds, and thankfully The Strange Little Cat does exactly that.

What little story there is in this under 80-minute film revolves around a middle class Berlin family gathering for dinner. In the morning, children come and go to help with various errands while food is prepared in the kitchen. Grandma rests upstairs while the dog eyes the cat suspiciously. In the evening, the small home is bustling as family members crisscross each other in crowded hallways to set the table or pour wine. And before too long, the table and the house are cleared leaving only empty rooms.

It’s not this sketch of story, then, that makes The Strange Little Cat a unique and intriguing film, but rather its amiable and sleepy mood, like a cozy tryptophan-induced nap on Thanksgiving day. Zürcher inflects the proceedings with a pinch of surrealism, but the details he highlights are humble and banal and curiously beguiling. If there is a main character in The Strange Little Cat, perhaps its Clara, the young daughter of the matriarch hostess. The camera and the tone of the film seem to adopt her point of view on the world, often dropped low and framing characters from waist height or from behind. Just as Clara’s attention flits from one curiosity to another—her father’s blood pressure monitor, a moth in the kitchen, the fizz of carbonated water—so too does the film’s. Also like Clara, the audience is only made dimly aware of a deep sadness in her mother, perhaps from nostalgia of her growing children, perhaps from a conflicted heart.

In both style and content, Zürcher is most interested in discovering these sensations and feelings of everyday domestic life that often go by unnoticed, and he’s utilized an elegant stylistic approach to find them. The Strange Little Cat is (I believe) exclusively assembled from locked-off shots, yet it never feels flat or inert. Instead, Zürcher animates these framings through the complicated movement of characters within each shots, with extremely clever and confident use of sound and off-screen space, and with simple cuts to punctuate moments for comedic effects or to draw our eye to a specific corner of the room.

The Strange Little Cat is a remarkably assured first feature, one that quietly and simply constructs a distinct cinematic language, and one that could herald a fresh new voice in world cinema.