As anyone who is owned by a cat will tell you, even when a cat is out of sight it is not wholly out of mind. Although the title character of When the Cat’s Away is lost for most of the film and therefore has very little actual screen time, its relationship to its designated human (a young woman named Chloe, played by Garance Clavel) is what chiefly informs this wistful little comedy written and directed by Cedric Klapisch and set in Paris.
The world is, of course, essentially divided into two camps: (1) those who relate to, enjoy, and respect the independence of cats and their tendency to bestow affection on their own terms; and (2) those who are affronted and or threatened by these characteristics. The first group is composed of folks who are intelligent and honest; they are unafraid to look life in the eye and are possessed of a becoming sense of modesty about their position in the universal scheme of things. The second group is characterized by lacking senses of both humor and irony; they’re highly egocentric, needy, and may frequently be found swathed in Chocolate Labradors or Golden Retrievers.
As the film opens, Chloe is almost too perfect a cat person—too unassuming, too willing to demand nothing of life and conscientiously act according to what life demands of her. She loathes the daily boredom of her makeup job at a fashion agency and decides to take a holiday. Her flatmate Michel (Olivier Py), who has just broken up with his lover, won’t look after Chloe’s beloved cat Gris-Gris, so she leaves him with absent-minded Madame Renee (Renee Le Calm). When she returns home Chloe finds her cat has disappeared. The ensuing search of her Paris neighborhood, in which she meets and is aided by a host of colorful neighbors she has not previously known, becomes a rite-of-passage for Chloe, a picaresque search for a stronger, less passive self. In her quest to find the missing Gris-Gris, she becomes more assertive about her own emotional needs—in her workplace dealings and in how she negotiates the Parisian singles scene.
Clavel’s performance is, like the film as a whole, innocently wide-eyed and charmingly understated. We begin to root for Chloe. She’s an attractive, rather lonely young woman and she’s not bothering a soul and, by gosh, it just crosses some sort of unacceptable boundary that her one true soul-mate, Gris-Gris, goes missing: it’s just a bit existentially de trop. Like the network of neighbors who take up Chloe’s search with her, we are drawn by Clavel’s delicate, winsome screen presence—it sustains interest throughout the film’s leisurely 85 minutes.
Klapisch, whose films include the award-winning L’Auberge Espagnole (2002) and Paris (2008), uses a few non-actors and scene improvisations which enhance the story’s casual naturalism. If some viewers find it a bit too aimless, others will revel in its intelligent simplicity and slightly lyricized verite. The film—which won the International Critics Award at the Berlin Film Festival—is in French with English subtitles. (Its original title, Son Chat Chacun Cerche, would more appropriately be translated as something like Everyone Searches for One’s Cat). From the opening titles sequence to the end credits, the soundtrack abounds with good music, ranging from classic soul to some particularly festive new French hip-hop.
When the Cat’s Away is the sort of deceptively deft observational comedy French cinema has always handled so well. As the episodic quest unfolds, the mix of professional actors and outre amateurs and Klapisch’s willingness to linger on specifics—side-narratives and character eccentricities—can give the narrative an almost desultory sense of spontaneous discovery, but as the emotional dynamic of the film gathers itself we become aware that there has been more architecture in achieving both the development and tone than may have met the eye.
The search for Gris-Gris takes Chole—and us—from a rather claustrophobic world defined by the apartment and Michel’s jejune irony and detachment into a broader, richer world peopled by diverse and engaging human beings. For a film that is small in scope and which judiciously chooses not to overplay its hand, When the Cat’s Away becomes a buoyant and heartwarming ode to community.
– Hadley Hury
(Available through Amazon Prime, TCM, Netflix DVD, and select streaming sites)