It’s unheard of for a short story to go viral, but Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person,” published in The New Yorker in December 2017, hit a raw nerve, arriving at the height of the #MeToo movement a couple of months after the bombshell revelations about Harvey Weinstein inspired a cultural reckoning about sex and power. “Cat Person” was a self-reflective, first-person narrative that explored the awkward gender and sexual power dynamics in a dalliance between a college sophomore and an older man she meets working at a movie theater.
Roupenian’s “Cat Person” served as a mirror to the reader, many of whom could relate to the uncomfortable feelings that Roupenian laid bare, others who perhaps questioned their own actions and choices they may have recognized in her prose. That kind of reflection made “Cat Person” a discourse-generating machine, which revved into gear again in 2021 when Alexis Nowicki wrote an essay in Slate revealing that Roupenian had borrowed details from her personal life for the story, deepening the moral and ethical quandary within the story and around it.
The film adaptation of “Cat Person” was already in motion when Nowicki’s piece was published, and the finished product now debuts at the Sundance Film Festival, co-starring Emilia Jones (“CODA”) and Nicholas Braun (“Succession”). No doubt the discourse machine is bound to start cranking again, particularly around some of the choices made in the adaptation to expand the world and story of “Cat Person” to a feature-length film.
Veteran TV writer Michelle Ashford (“Masters of Sex,” “Mayfair Witches”) adapts the story for the screen, with Susanna Fogel (“The Spy Who Dumped Me”) directing the project. Necessarily, they have built out the world inhabited by college sophomore Margot (Jones), coloring in the details about Margot’s mother (Hope Davis), roommate Taylor (Geraldine Viswanathan) and high-school boyfriend (Isaac Powell, “Dear Evan Hansen”).
They’ve created a new character, Margot’s archaeology professor (Isabella Rossellini) whose lab, filled with animal bones and discussions of ant-colony behavior, offers a creepy setting and thematic underpinning for the stilted mating ritual Margot undertakes with Robert (Braun). She makes idle conversation with him at the movie-theater concession stand, negging the shy, bearded thirty-something about his Red Vines. In turn, he doesn’t so much as ask for her number but demands it, beginning a beautiful text-message relationship.
Margot, like many young women who grow up feeling like prey, has an active imagination about all the good things, and the bad things, that may be when it comes Robert. Most women will cop to indulging in terrifying thought experiments about the doom that may befall them when alone with a strange man, fueled by true crime of course, but also the reality that interacting with men as a young woman feels like being stalked by an apex predator.
Fogel and Ashford lay all of that plainly, often painfully bare in the film version of “Cat Person.” The film opens with the well-known Margaret Atwood quote about men being afraid women will laugh at them while women are afraid men will kill them. That quote doesn’t appear in Roupenian’s story, though it is obliquely referenced, and that very specific tension simmers underneath every interaction between Margot and Robert, and contributes to the shifting power trade-off between them.
Fogel and Ashford externalize and visualize Margot’s inner monologue. Taylor becomes the receptacle for Margot’s anxious text-message waffling about Robert as well as the voice of reason. But she’s not without flaw, and as the strident moderator of a militant feminist subreddit she faces her own comeuppance, too. It is most obvious with Taylor to see how the filmmakers yank the piece from a pre–#MeToo moment into the progressive politics of 2023, which are shockingly different compared to six years ago.
There’s also the question of Margot’s slightly paranoid fantasies about Robert that ping-pong from seductive to dangerous. She imagines Robert attacking her or, in session with a therapist, declaring his desire for her open vulnerability. The bravura centerpiece of the film is an extended sex scene between Margot and Robert, with Margot in conversation with herself as she questions if she even wants to be there as she consents to Robert’s awkward, yet porny, fumbling. She declares it “the worst decision of her life,” though there are some later decisions that may call that into question.
Fogel stylizes “Cat Person” as a thriller with horror elements. The film takes place almost entirely at night and an early scene features a bloody nightmare in which Margot dreams of a dog tearing her RA apart. The skeleton-filled labs and long, lonely walks home in the dark lend to the sinister atmosphere.
While Roupenian’s story ends with a decisive villain, the movie, expanding further into a third act, complicates matters, especially after taking a turn into the action-thriller vein. Margot and Robert constantly swap roles as predator and prey, their socially-ascribed identities making them defensive and irrational, their anxieties and paranoia eventually combusting into catastrophe.
But after the smoke has cleared, it’s all too confusing to figure out who has wronged whom. Robert is guilty of bad sex and bad texts, but Margot has also transgressed against him, and the repeated fantasy sequences render her, unfortunately, an unreliable narrator. You keep expecting her to snap out of the outrageous third act, that it’s just another florid fantasy about how things could go so wrong.
In the end, “Cat Person” is just as unsettling as the story that inspired it. But it is a bold, stylish and dynamic adaptation that makes big choices that may have one puzzling through both the characters’ and filmmakers’ intentions — or maybe not. It is a mirror after all, and the moral of the story is left up to us, which is perhaps the most daring move of all.
“Cat Person” makes its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.