Seemingly everyone at Sundance has a lot to say about the highly anticipated adaptation of the viral short story from the New Yorker, starring Emilia Jones (“CODA”) and Nicholas Braun (Cousin Greg from “Succession”) about a 20-year-old woman, Margot, who strikes up a mostly text-based relationship with an older man, Robert, and then goes on an epically bad date with him.
The story by Kristen Roupenian launched a thousand Twitter threads about consent and bad kissers (and ghosting, and is it okay to change your mind about having sex with someone midway through the act) when it came out in December 2017, as society started to grapple with the fallout of #MeToo. (The story was published just two months after the initial investigative reports by the New York Times and the New Yorker regarding Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual abuse.) Listening to audience chatter leaving the premiere Saturday was like hearing those Twitter threads get revived, five years later. Stories of nightmarish dates are apparently as resonant as ever.
In a big departure from Roupenian’s subtle short story, though, the film version of “Cat Person” is unmistakably a darkly comedic horror film about the hellscape of modern dating. Director Susanna Fogel (who co-wrote the screenplay for 2019′s “Booksmart”) and writer Michelle Ashford (creator of “Masters of Sex”) have leaned into genre elements, often jumping between reality and Margot’s violent visions of being in constant danger, just by virtue of being a woman. Every walk home alone at night and every touch of the arm carries the potential for harm, with Heather McIntosh’s score adding a heightened sense of dread.
The film also adds Isabella Rossellini as Margot’s professor, giving biting commentary on the gender dynamics of ants and bees, and a skeptical feminist best friend (Geraldine Viswanatha from “Blockers”) who is constantly pointing out how this relationship seems like bad news, only to have Margot ignore all her warnings.
“Michelle and I talked a lot about trying to manifest those internalized fears in an externalized sense of danger,” Fogel said at the post-screening Q&A session, “even if it’s just that feeling of that adrenaline, that cortisol flash of danger that I think a lot of women have when they’re in a situation with someone they don’t know, suddenly aware of the size of that person who they just got into a car with that they met on Tinder a day ago and now they’re driving down a highway at 80 miles an hour.”
The movie’s biggest supporters seemed to be those who went into it blind and weren’t as thrown off by the movie’s extreme, worst-case-scenario third act, which plays out what happens after the gut-punch ending of Roupenian’s story, when Robert lashes out at Margot over text after she ghosts him. Nuanced it is not, but it is a fascinating adaptation of what seemed to be un-film-able source material that takes place mostly over text and in Margot’s head from her.
The audience responded to that third act with a lot of squirming, nervous laugher, and hands over their eyes—but it also gives Robert a chance to say what was going on in his head and grill Margot about what he could have done that was wrong . The man sitting next to me said he appreciated the addition, because he’d gone through those same kinds of emotions, of jumping to all kinds of conclusions after a woman he was dating had inexplicably pulled away.
At the centerpiece of the film, as with the story, is Robert being a truly terrible kisser, which Margot ignores on her way to having sex with him on their first date, even as she grows increasingly repulsed by him. “Trying to figure out how to kiss bad and extremely bad is very fun for two actors to figure out,” Braun said in a short interview. “’Was that weird enough? Not? Let’s go weirder.’”
As for the sex scene, director Fogel made the choice to place another, out-of-body Margot in the room, giving comedic commentary as the act is going down. Jones said that despite the darkness of the material, there was a lot of laughing, even halfway through takes.
Although the film is Margot’s story, Fogel said, she felt the casting of Robert was what had to be the most specific. He needed to be attractive, a little bit off and of imposing size, so Margot feels a certain sense of discomfort. “Nick is kind of a magical creature in that he plays nerdy on TV, but also, he’s a heartthrob in the world,” Fogel said. “He’s kind of the perfect mix because you have to believe that she would be interested in him and be able to project onto him. Nick has this chameleon-like quality where in some light you look at him and say, ‘Oh, that’s a leading man,’ and then other times he’s insecure or saying the wrong thing and you can shrink back from that attraction.”
Braun also felt like he related to the awkwardness of the role. “Everybody’s been a Robert in some way,” he said. “You’re trying really hard, or doing whatever macho thing will make you more appealing, or dressing a certain way to impress a woman. I think I’ve also been awkward and uncomfortable and over-lusting, like ‘Oh god, I want this so bad,’ and then you kind of ruin something because it’s so uneven.”
Whatever anyone will think of the film and its success as an adaptation (it hasn’t yet been sold for distribution), it did seem to be striking a nerve with the audience, who kept on talking about the gray areas of dating and the messiness of couples at house parties across Park City that night. Fogel said in the Q&A that the film was a necessary evolution from the female revenge thriller that became prominent after the reckoning on men in the late 2010s.
“We wanted to explore ambivalence and the idea that consent is an ongoing thing and people change their minds,” said Fogel, “and there has to be room to talk about that in the culture, too. Sometimes you maybe wish you weren’t in a place, when you did all the things that led you to that place. And what then? Was the other person supposed to know? There’s such a pressure to be absolutely sure of what you want and be able to articulate it, otherwise you forfeit your ability to escape a situation.”
Reviews have been mixed. Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times criticized its “bludgeoning storytelling” that devolves into “a bloody, fiery and spectacularly violent mess,” while Variety admired its “risky” and “daring” third act. Indiewire called it “appropriately excruciating,” in a complementary way, and said “it will set your teeth on edge and raise the hairs on the back of your neck, just as it should.”
Roupenian said it was just her second time seeing the film and her stomach still hurt after watching. “It made me think about how experiences that feel internal and invisible actually aren’t,” she said. “They’re all actually on her face de ella minute by minute and yet it’s still so hard to talk about. … Everybody is not having the same experience and that’s shocking and amazing and scary.”