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Manuel de Layet [Film Festival 09.10.15] Netherlands horror drama



The long awaited, by me at least, new feature film by Maartje Seyferth & Victor Nieuwenhuijs is finally here. You should remember them from their 1994 début Venus in Furs, or a bit more recently with 2010's Meat (review). In our world where "independent" is now nothing more than a marketing label abused by majors in search of a more diverse customer base (see "The global war on culture" by Frédéric Martel if you doubting my word) directors like them deserve a better term to qualify their output. I'll settle on "artisan." More on that later.


Cat and Mouse is a picture born of twilight. A fugue state between innocence and despair, revolving around a troubled young girl facing bereavement.


Set in that particular brand of countryside where the whole of existence revolves around two pillars: the café and the cemetery, life and death in their socially acceptable forms. Ensconced into a nature slowly reclaiming her rights on whatever puny civilisation we tried to build there, a crop of run down infrastructures populated by a handful of equally broken beings. The whole cast, including the non-human one, has a Rubensian quality that deeply resonates as somewhat pelagic. Vessels of flesh, battered against the flow of life till they sunk, now waiting, buoying out of reach.


I spent some of my youth in such a place, a cliff-side ruin where poisoning your neighbour's cat was the local sport, and it's surely why this whole décor and assorted denizens speaks to me. Consider this: the whole setting manages to twist such innocent and carefree imagery as "blond-girl-riding-through-wheat-fields-on-a-bicycle" into something eerie and foreboding.


What is Cat and Mouse really about? That you'll need to discover for yourself. That's the whole point of it. No hints, no clues.


You see with this kind of narration, like in a good old British closed-room/whodunnit plot, my conundrum is to manage to tease enough of the story to be interesting without spoiling it for you, my dear audience. As Jodorowsky put it, a work of Art is "like a virginal bride, you have to tear away the dress, to rape her," which is a good thing, metaphorically speaking, when you're the only one perusing said bride. Leaving a sobbing mess for others to enjoy is less appealing. I'll try and rip a few veils off Salome without hindering her dance:



Our main protagonist is the aforementioned blond girl, late teens extremely blond, extremely pale, like a washed out figure from a Botticelli painting, living with her aunt. The aunt is physically the same after years of being hammered on the anvil of despair. The pale skin now tallow-like, the hair ragged, dressed in the European version of the Mu-Mu, a thing I've seen my great-grandmother wear and wouldn't have thought was still made, her body skewered with heavy fits of consumption. Her mind wandering some-place else, each move made heavy with Castenada inspired passes to ward off whatever lurks.


Evening in the dilapidated homestead. Cold, mouldering light bathing the bedroom they both share, the aunt in the throes of death, gasping for breath, asking "Where am I?," her niece to answer rather clinically "In Hell aunt," watching the agony like an entomologist inspects a curious species of moth before going back to sleep. Everything else will flow from that scene, the girl's mother comes back for the funeral and…


If you ever had trouble grasping with Lacanian school of symbolism, consider this film a crash course. Symbol, Reality and Fantasy are so minutely weaved together they become indiscernible from one another, transcending the experience into something of an intricate puzzle begging to be solved. A frozen figment of time where nothing is what it seems while everything has meaning.


As I stated countless times, it was rather painstakingly imprinted upon me that a good film has to been seen at least three times to be completely understood. What my late teacher coined as "rétroversivité" also being instrumental as a quality gauging tool: once the last image is seen the first one must change its meaning accordingly or else something is wrong and the picture is a failure.


By this rather elite combined standards Cat and Mouse is an exceptional feature.


For obvious deontological reasons I should now bring to your attention that this article was written a good fortnight before the World Premiere, that I have seen two slightly different versions of the picture and do undergo a regular correspondence with the directors. This being acknowledged, and if you're interested in a more in depth analysis of the subject, you will find some excerpts from said correspondence below the trailer. Spoilers ahead as they say, but the input is invaluable to anyone with a passing interest in their work.



If you're still here I'll assume you want this analysis, but be warned, it's better for you to have seen the picture. I won't be responsible.

On the intent:

"The title was born parallel with the idea that our next film should be about the offender, the culprit and the victim, guilt and innocence, large and small. Actually these essential elements figure in all our films. The metaphor CAT and MOUSE emerged, although I never look for metaphors or symbolism. But while writing, I could not get rid of it and in the end I had to accept it. After all, our minds are full of symbolism and metaphors, like it or not.

The general theme of the film is about the truth of the remembrance, how true are your memories? Did everything really happen the way you remember it? Or do you mould and shape the "truth" after your memories?

The different ways every single human experiences his remembrance and how a traumatic event can distort this process."


This one is incredibly pertinent, since what I saw, what I've told you, and what they initially intended do not perfectly overlap. There's, in my view, a rather important dimension of catharsis and a coming of age spin to the whole story, the woods becoming the symbol of her childhood, her leaving with her mother at the end being the severance from it and the trauma associated. That this catharsis happens in the conscious re-enacting of the initial accident has a psycho-magical ring to it I'm bound to admire. It's rather like a Stokoe novel, despair and turmoil ending in something of a Thébaïde, a new-found mental equilibrium and fitness for the world. Lots of scenes have this rather in your face semantics. In one she climbs atop the church, surveying the forest, getting a grip on her mind, literally taking height over her problems, and it's shot in a manner that feels so obvious, so natural it's a pure joy to watch.

On the cast:

"The location itself had to give you a feeling like being imprisoned in free nature and of a desperate solitude, despite friendly surroundings. A place where guilt and innocence were mingled, a place with no way out, a place where everything is already determined and where fate reigns.
The feeling of being imprisoned in history, the mingling of guilt and innocence, these starting points we also used for the casting of the actors. We were looking for more-layered actors with a natural aura, and with a personality that could cause confusion and empathy."


This achieves something subtle during the course of the picture, it's like the difference between stereotype and archetype. The cast ends up being living concepts, physical embodiments of the ideas behind them, however conflicting and diverse in their range. You hate them and feel saddened at their turmoil in equal measures.

For the logistically inclined, more on the "artisan" approach I was initially hinting about:

"We were working with a crew as small as possible. Mainly with people with whom we in the first place share a mentality, a flexibility and enthusiasm. Besides that we (Victor and Maartje) produced the whole film together, Victor was the DOP and Maartje directed, did costume and props. We actually lived with cast and crew in our locations, not only because we were on a very tight budget, but also to get immersed in the atmosphere. The circumstances influenced the way we were working during the shoot. Scenes were deleted, new scenes added or adapted. An actor who did not show up for the planned shoot was replaced by a crew member. When one of the main lights broke during the heavy rains we experienced during the shoot, we adapted the lighting concept. Children's behaviour, animals refusing, locations that became suddenly not available, it all forced us to change, adapt, improvise. And in most cases, the scenes became better then we expected."

Recommended Release: The Strange Cinema of Maartje Seyferth and Victor Nieuwenhuijs: Venus and Furs + Lulu + Crépuscule + Meat


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