Academic journal article CineAction

Cat People and Its Two Worlds

Academic journal article CineAction

Cat People and Its Two Worlds

Article excerpt

In this essay I want to look at the film Cat People (1942), both produced (by Val Lewton: born Yalta 1904, emigrated 1909) and directed (by Jacques Tourneur: born Paris 1904, emigrated 1913, returned to Paris 1929-34) by emigres to the U.S. In addition, it is largely concerned with the difficulties of a foreign female (played by Simone Simon, whose film career began in France in 1931, but who moved to America in 1935) living in a New York in which she wants to belong, but cannot.

In order to elucidate the film, I am drawing on a new theory of cultural origins developed by the anthropologist Chris Knight in his book Blood Relations. Here he argues that all the world's magical myths and fairy-tales share a common structure. This structure derives from the social structure of an African hunter-gatherer moiety society, in which culture emerged (approximately 100,000 years ago) as a consequence of females coercing males to hunt for them by going on a sex-strike at dark moon. At this time, by pretending to be infertile (menstruating) male animals they were collectively signalling "no" ("wrong sex, wrong species, wrong time") as well as indicating to the hunters what they were wanting: bleeding (raw) animal meat brought to them. This shared fantasy creates the first human rules and agreements, especially the domain of the sacred/taboo, which is contrasted with the profane/everyday. To enable the sacred to emerge, females enact together a shared fantasy, creating--through song, dance and body paint (the first cosmetics)--a collective identity which is paradoxical, or beyond easy definition. By connecting their sacredness to the hunted animal, they prevent the hunters from eating the killed animal on the spot (the "hunter's own kill rule"). Instead, the hunters return (at full moon, the most propitious time for the climax of the hunt, when there is the maximum amount of continuous light) to the "home-base" with their kills, where the women emerge from their ritual "other world" and turn back to themselves again. The blood (and the body paint) is removed, the meat is cooked, there is feasting and the "marital" or heterosexual sex-strike is lifted.

According to this theory, metamorphosis, transformation or "skin-change" is a specifically female capacity, associated with marital disjunction. The female can, as it were, move between two worlds. In one of these worlds (the "sacred") is her blood kin or sisters, in the other (the "profane") her husband. She belongs fully to neither, since it is the fact of alternation which is crucial. In the earliest hunter-gatherer societies these two worlds are complementary; in later, agricultural and post-agricultural societies they tend to become mutually exclusive. Movement may be possible, but it may be irreversible and is in any case never unproblematic.

To see how this might relate to Cat People, let's consider its plot: Irena, a Serbian-born commercial artist living in New York, is haunted by the fear that she is descended from a race of cat-women who, when physically aroused, turn into panthers. Oliver falls in love with her and tries to convince her that her fears are groundless. They marry but Irena is afraid to consummate her marriage, begging Oliver to be patient. After a time, Oliver persuades her to visit

Dr. Judd, a psychiatrist. Judd proves to be no help. Irena grows worse, and Oliver finds solace in telling his problems to Alice, who works at his ship-designing firm. Subsequently, Alice is twice menaced by some unknown animal. Oliver tells Irena he is going to divorce her, and later that evening both he and Alice are attacked while working late at the office. Dr. Judd visits Irena and tries to make love to her. She turns into a panther and kills him. Wounded by Judd, Irena dies at Central Park Zoo while trying to free a caged panther.

The central figure of this draraa is the woman, Irena. It is upon her that the plot hinges. The "inciting incident" (the phrase comes from Robert McKee's study of screenwriting, Story) is her courtship by Oliver, which she consciously welcomes, but at a deeper level fears. …

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