A film that makes one re-think notions of good and bad in cinema: On the one hand, Pierre Granier-Deferre is such a heavy-handy director, with the conceptual and symbolic dimensions of Le chat so underlined and over-signalled: birds fluttering outside windows, sirens circling, golden youth of long ago seen through hazy irises in flashback; the little house surrounded by wrecking crews turning the old world to dust; garbage trucks regularly reappearing at their front door, perhaps to pick up the wreckage of the protagonist’s lives: there are times where one can’t control the giggling (see the trailer posted below). On the other hand, any director who can get actors to do what Jean Gabin and Simone Signoret do here, alone and together, deserves all the praise there is. They are so gobsmackingly good — so electric – and the roles they play so great — offering such scope and variety of human character and emotion, and changing through time to boot — that one can only offer admiration and gratitude.
Julien Bouin, a retired typesetter, has been married to his wife Clémence (Simone Signoret) a former circus worker for over 25 years. He now can’t stand her. Everything she does irritates him. Why, she asks? Is it cause she got old and fat, cause she drinks? He doesn’t know. All he knows is that one day he stopped loving her. Because of that, she now hates him too. They shop separately at the same shops, keep their food under lock and key in separate cupboards, cook different dishes in the same kitchen, sleep in the same room but in different beds, do little mean and spiteful things to each other. Every day.
Gabin plays Julien as quiet, all closed-in; neat, carefully dressed. A mild-mannered man who does things carefully, systematically but who won’t be pushed to do what he doesn’t wants to. He’s a man who takes pride in doing things carefully and well. Also, he still needs to love; and not the kind of physical love that one can get anywhere either but an outlet for real feeling. He finds it in his cat. It drives Clémence mad that a cat who neither needs it nor appreciates it becomes the recipient of the love Julien should be bestowing on her. She tries to shoo the cat away, attempts to lose him in the supermarket. But no, he returns to steal the attention, the caresses, the love that rightfully belongs to her. So, one day, she kills the cat….
We know Signoret was a great beauty. She’s someone who did speak many languages, and we can believe she plays the seven instruments Clémence claims to be able to. And we can understand the bewilderment, anger, fury that this little typesetter not loving her incites. We see the defiance in every glug of whisky, the determination in the speed with which she manouvers her bad leg through the shops, no limp is going to hold this woman back: the Chinese silk robe in the loud red of someone who demands being noticed. The cigarillo on the side of a mouth. Only the loss a her husband’s love could lead her to crocheting with the fury of someone who wants to commit murder. But the film underlines one can’t hate that much without it being overlaid by love: Signoret communicates the tenderness beautifully. Gabin also.
Le chat beautifully conveys a gamut of human emotion – characters who feel that much is Simenon’s gift to the filmmakers; it is fitting that he is billed alongside the ‘monstres sacrées’ of french cinema and above the title of the film . The director’s gift to the actors is to give them the space to be these people and to showcase them properly for us. Then the actors…well. Watching Gabin and Signoret together play this couple is like watching two great opera singers duet in a Verdi aria: raw, vivid, fine, delicate, explosive…. And watching them seems to me to be essential to anyone who wants to know what great acting in the cinema can be; they bring out areas of human feeling, emotion and experience that lesser actors don’t even known exist.
In the interview that accompanies the Studiocanal DVD, Granier-Deferre speaks about how the producers had not wanted Signoret. Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’armée des ombres, her previous film, had been a failure, and she was (most unjustly) being blamed for it. They went through all the other names of fancy actresses and finally Gabin asked Granier-Deferre: ‘you’ve really got your heart set on that Signoret?’ ‘Yes’. He calls the producer and says ‘If Signoret is not in it, I don’t do the film’. ‘Six hours later I got Signoret,’ remembers Granier-Deferre. Good thing he did too. Because Signoret and and Gabin are the only reasons to watch the film; they make one feel it’s essential viewing; and it certainly is to fans of Gabin, Signoret, Georges Simenon or anyone who’s interested in seeing great acting in the cinema.