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Feline Dancing

Garance Clavel
Couch Potatoes: Garance Clavel enjoys some quality time with her soon to be awandering furry friend.

Communities aren't missed until they're gone in 'When the Cat's Away'

By Richard von Busack

THERE'S NOTHING LIKE that special moment when the curtain rises at the art-house movie theater. I'm speaking metaphorically; there is no curtain there. Silhouetted against the austerely blank screen, the ever dwindling audience for serious films trots in. Sandpiper-legged students form the vanguard for bewhiskered cinéastes, who, as old as yonder elm, dodder forward, their eyes dimmed by age and the lack of light, trying to find a seat that will favor their aching backs. The last mutterers are shushed--and then the coming attractions, the best part of the show.

Two minutes of Ponette: The little heroine is weeping, juxtaposed with the white-on-black title card. Janet Maslin celebrates Ponette's "childlike innocence"; it doesn't take Nostradamus to anticipate that turn of phrase. Love Serenade's trailer sports surgeonlike editing in the ace Miramax manner to make a seriously odd-ball Australian movie look cuddly (which it isn't) and sexy (which it is).

Finally, the preview for When the Cat's Away. Star Garance Clavel is shown in close-up, sort of apologizing for the fact that the movie is only about a lost cat. She is interrupted by dismissive comments from various crabby old ladies and cafe loungers. At last, one of the old grannies, exasperated, tells the audience to shoo--she's not about to give away the plot for free.

I loved the approach, even while thinking that this anti-sell doomed the American hopes of a movie highly recommended to anyone softhearted about cats and Paris.

Clavel, the Shelley Duvall type, plays Chloé, a young Parisian woman about to embark on a long-delayed vacation. At the end of her list of things to do is finding someone to take care of her cat, Gris-Gris. We see the animal on the sofa, purring fatly to the accompaniment of one of Chopin's nocturnes; it's obvious that a cat-lover's cauchemar is about to unfold.

No one feels like helping her (a friend suggests dumping the cat in the Seine); finally, Chloé hires a raspy old cat-lady named Mme. Renée (Renée Le Calm). Chloé's vacation is recorded by director Cédric Klapisch as follows: an establishing shot of Chloé outside a train station; 10 seconds of her up to her neck in ocean water; the exact same shot outside the train station for her return. Back home, Chloé finds the cat missing and Mme. Renée prostrate with grief.

To search for Gris-Gris, Chloé is forced to leave her flat and the company of her gay male housemate, Michel (Olivier Py). Her blues just worsen, reflected in trouble at her depressing job as a henpecked makeup artist and in the meanness of a bar where she attracts either no attention or the wrong kind of attention. Everywhere, there are lonely old ladies as a reminder of mortality.

These same old ladies form a sort of militia to help Chloé hunt for Gris-Gris, as do a few other neighbors she has met in passing. One Djamel (Zinedine Soualem) is especially dedicated, but he also has an ardent crush on Chloé that becomes more discomforting for her as the film goes on.

CHLOÉ LIVES in the 11th arrondissement. One guidebook I saw calls it "the white-hot Bastille district." The Bastille is going through gentrification, and old ladies are getting kicked out to make room for young boutiques. This trend is sketched in one fine scene: The old birds are clucking over the ugliness of modern fashions in a window display. Meanwhile, the new shopkeeper is admiring the quaintness of the neighborhood grannies: "It's like a peasant village!"

When the Cat's Away wanders at times, and Klapisch's direction is erratic. Sometimes he holds his moments too long. But his film can get under your skin, not just if you know what it's like to search for a damned elusive cat but also if you've ever daydreamed about Paris. When the Cat's Away lets you know that even if you lived in Paris, you wouldn't be able to hear the accordions for the jackhammers tearing down the buildings.

Klapisch uses telescoping shots to show a city under siege by construction cranes. In a dream sequence, Chloé calls Gris-Gris from the highest point in the district, the top of the monument at the Place Vendôme. What she's calling for seems to be the waning spirit of the old city.

Klapisch proves that the spirit has more lives than a cat. The director sweetens his film with generous helpings of Clavel's cool charm and a finale in a very unchic cafe. There, a bunch of locals are sarcastically singing a tune about "Paris, Queen of the World" as yet another evicted artist packs up the rent-a-van to head out for ungentrified territory. At its wisest, the film demonstrates that you don't know you're in a community until it's gone--a thought to ponder for people who still go to see French films.

When the Cat's Away (Unrated; 96 min.), directed and written by Cédric Klapisch, photographed by Benoît Delhomme and starring Garance Clavel.

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From the July 10-16, 1997 issue of Metro.

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