That Darn Cat: ‘The Cassandra Cat’ Blu-ray Reviewed
by Rachel Bellwoar
When Mourek the cat wears sunglasses in Vojtěch Jasný‘s The Cassandra Cat, it’s not for fashion. It’s because people don’t like him very much without his shades, yet the shades are coming off and no one is safe from Mourek’s gaze.
Unlike a gorgon, Mourek doesn’t turn people into stone, but he does reveal their true colors. We’re talking red, yellow, purple, and grey people, like the horses in The Wizard of Oz (or Paul Giamatti in Big Fat Liar). One look from Mourek is it all it takes for the guilty to be exposed to their neighbors (or for people who are in love to turn red).
In their commentary, Projection Booth podcast host Mike White, and special guests Chris Stachiw and Spencer Parsons, explain how these practical effects were achieved using make-up, costumes, and lighting — and admire the way the film is able to establish what each color means through repetition.
As helpful as that approach is for remembering what each color signifies, after a certain point The Cassandra Cat starts to repeat itself in other ways, too, until it feels like the same point gets made over and over again. It’s a visually stunning movie – a live action fairy tale like Jacque Demy’s Donkey Skin, except more akin to Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris. Neither film shies away from color and there are even long sequences in The Cassandra Cat that feel like ballet because they’re set to music.
It all begins when Robert (Vlastimil Brodský) invites the town’s castellan, Oliva (Jan Werich), to be a live model for his art class. Instead of sitting silently, Oliva decides to tell the students a story about the time he fell in love with a woman named Diana (Emília Vásáryová). Her cat wore sunglasses and Oliva was told never to remove them. When he didn’t listen, the rest is history…
Except it’s not because that same day Diana and her cat show-up again as part of a traveling magic show. This time it’s Robert’s turn to fall in love with her but, instead of being blamed for Mourek’s glasses, Diana takes them off voluntarily.
But why? Why the change of heart about the glasses? And why use Oliva’s past with Diana as a means to introduce the character but then never bring it up again? Those are good questions, and if Jiří Brdečka, Jasný, and Werich’s screenplay bothered to answer some of them, they might have a better story on their hands. As it is, none of the relationships are given much depth. None of the characters really change. There is one instance where a point is made of showing a character turn one color the first time Mourek looks at them and another color the second time. This could’ve been taken further, though, and while it’s implied that the character grew, the impact would’ve been much stronger if they had appeared in more scenes to establish that growth.
Besides clearly taking inspiration from The Pied Piper for the ending, Robert’s character arc in The Cassandra Cat reminded me of August’s (Ben Whishaw) in Sarah Polley‘s Women Talking, except The Cassandra Cat never gives Robert’s relationship with Diana much weight, so the ending falls short.
That The Cassandra Cat would’ve worked better as a short film is proven by the inclusion of Brdečka’s animated short, “Badly Painted Hen,” as a bonus feature. It’s amazing the parallels that can be made between the two movies and how well they complement each other (like what are the chances that they both feature a taxidermy-loving bird enthusiast?). Like many sequences in The Cassandra Cat, there’s no dialogue in “Badly Painted Hen,” which means there’s nothing to translate. It really highlights how animation (and silent film in general) can cross language barriers (both The Casandra Cat and “Badly Painted Hen” are Czechoslovakian).
“Badly Painted Hen” is about a group of students who are asked to try and replicate a drawing of a chicken, except one sheepish-looking young lad is more experimental with his drawing. It’s a really sweet film, filled with clever sight gags (like having the teacher swap glasses to change their eyebrows), and smart in its use of color (like having the teacher’s pet wear the same shade of green as the teacher). Even if The Cassandra Cat has its flaws, “Badly Painted Hen” makes up for them and it would be great if Second Run were able to release a whole collection of Brdečka’s animation someday.
The Cassandra Cat is available on all-region Blu-ray from Second Run and comes with an essay booklet by Cherise Howard that provides more background on the director.