“We don’t even belong to each other”: a love letter to cats on film

Man’s best friend may be on trend right now in celebration of Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, but one of the film’s major antagonists goes unanswered for. Why does everyone hate cats? The felines are associated with tyrannical politicians, inherently opposed to the plucky pro-dog protesters, ultimately reminding audiences of the other way you can spell the film’s title to praise canines. While dogs provide a reliable amount of bounce and sure-fire optimism, there’s something more slippery and dangerously powerful about cats in cinema’s history books.

More than stylistic or comedic accessories, cats on screen are given great responsibility. To mirror, to enhance or to question the humans they stand alongside (or pleasantly perch on), the biological differences don’t necessarily limit the narrative or symbolic scope. It’s important now in a moment of incomparable evolution, in a long overdue recognition of diverse voices and faces, to celebrate the pivotal, poignant history of fantastic felines that still continue to shape human stories. Past a binary determination of cartoonish evil or warmth, there is depth to be considered in order to better appreciate the wisdom that cats so graciously share with humans – when they want to.

“We belong to nobody, and nobody belongs to us. We don’t even belong to each other”, Holly Golightly explains about her cat, who goes by the name Cat, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. As a sidekick no less important than its human, Cat mirrors Holly’s independence. He’s present throughout her journey, providing companionship while creating his own narrative too. He feels and expresses opinions, from scanning potential love interest Fred for signs of trouble through hostile first impressions, to creating his own idea of fun at Holly’s party – giving the humans what they want with his acrobatic frivolity. Like the young woman, contradictory in her determined ambition and carefree laziness, Cat brings light to the story and great relatability as an independent being who wouldn’t mind a little bit of love at times. There’s very little to indicate that Cat is a lesser player than Holly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s — a phenomenon revisited by the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis.

A reflection and byproduct of Llewyn Davis’ solitude, the musician soon gets caught up with a cat that he never asked for. But cats rarely act based on what they’ve been asked. Their relationship begins as one frustrated loner drops his guard and makes room in his life for another. The cat sees an opportunity, and then becomes a symbolic extension of Llewyn’s own effacing identity, giving his begrudging owner a weariness which becomes part of his costume. Llewyn runs after the cat trying to escape, using his rescue as an excuse to slip away from his own life. By the end of the film the cat is given a name – Ulysses. It’s hardly coincidental that his name is one of a transient character in Greek mythology, struggling to find a home himself. But it hardly matters at that point, as Llewyn has spent most of his relationship with the cat trying to understand and communicate how this ginger tom knows him better than himself. “Explain the cat”, Jean asks Llewyn. An unwanted alter-ego or mystic reality check – it seems like he can’t.

The cat in Alien is still remembered as one of the more intriguing and grounding elements of 70s sci-fi, as he is one of the only survivors of the Nostromo alongside Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. There’s a talismanic property to his stillness, as reaction shots of wide yellow-green eyes illustrate the horror unfolding. As the humans lose control and stranger beings take over, the cat maintains a level of quiet concern and growing tension in the film. It’s this silence that acts as a driving force of calm, an indicator of potential survival without the loud-voice theatrics that can tend to characterize horror. No one knows why the cat survives, but no one would necessarily doubt that he’d be the most likely to, either.

In Lynne Ramsay’s recent You Were Never Really Here, there is no outshining Joaquin Phoenix as the experienced hitman Joe, but the fleeting presence of a feline companion also increases the dripping tension of his story. In a moment of respite, Joe pauses with a cat by his side. He strokes the cat, not making eye contact or necessarily seeking comfort. There’s no explicit connection that needs to be made in order to elucidate the prickly emotional balance that sways into posthumanism, just through this one cat’s stare. The sense of danger is tangible in its stoic strength. Not necessarily shown by how far it can run without being told what to do, the cat’s power comes from how much it seems to know before any human, even Joe, can think about saying.

It’s amusing then to consider that the scene-stealing cat in the opening of The Godfather actually came to appear on screen by chance. Director Francis Ford Coppola is said to have found the stray cat on set while filming, and added it in to the scene to soften the character of Don Vito Corleone, played by Marlon Brando. As the Mafioso is introduced in a slow and stern drawl, the purring cat on his lap is mesmerizing as a vital source of entertainment and intrigue. It invites laughter and comfort, but in the discrepancy between the innocence of clawing, head-lolling affection and the lethal sterility of the Godfather, there is an astounding sense of gravity.

There is magic in this combined gravity and humour that a cat’s presence creates onscreen. While they’re somewhat side-lined in Anderson’s current stop-motion love letter, the world of independent film still has a lot in store for felines. Loosely retelling the story of an impossibly famous Mexican heist, Museo paints a Peter Pan-inspired picture of two criminals who still haven’t grown up. Like in The Godfather, a cat furthers the comic vulnerability of its theoretically menacing master. As Juan and Wilson’s capers creep towards panic, the fluffy cat perched on Wilson’s lap provides a silliness the audience knows to be defining of the humans, and a comforting reassurance that said human is desperate to find – to no avail. In L’Animale, the metaphorical and literal significance of animalistic desires transpires in a bold story of sexual discovery. While eloquent imagery is littered throughout, the greatest power of the film is in the majesty of a confident, good-looking cat sat on a bed while the humans sleep.

With no words or orchestrated gimmicks, the cat in this film, like those who have come before it, communicates feelings of independence, control and calm; against loneliness, indecision, danger and frustration. But if you are graced with a loud purr from a cat, don’t be fooled. It’s sometimes a sign of happiness, but it can also express relief, hunger, or whatever else they decide they want from their human. In not knowing where you stand, whether you’re loved now or if you still will be tomorrow — maybe that’s why it’s sometimes easier to be a dog person. But has a good story ever been admired for being easy?

Originally published on the Quietus

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