Cat People resounds as one of the great films about sexual repression. Dripping with paranoia and desire, the film is about a newlywed couple struggling with sex. Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) is a confident architect and Irena (Simone Simon) is a beautiful Serbian immigrant who believes sex will unleash a monster within her. Struggling to understand his young bride (and becoming increasingly frustrated with her), Oliver turns to a coworker for comfort (don’t worry, no funny business, the film still operates well within the production code).
Like all of the Val Lewton-produced films, Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People operates between myth and reality. The film never fully commits to the idea that Irena transforms into a cat, instead insinuating it with shadows and sound. The otherness of Irena is emphasized heavily in the text, from her physical appearance and accent to the way she navigates American life. Tourneur works to make the film about her alienation rather than position her as a threat. Irena’s plight as an immigrant becomes a defining factor for her identity and circumstance. She is isolated in America, and her ties to the old world are oppressive and demoralizing — her sense of self is heavily compromised. Yet, through the strength of her character, she is the emotional heart of the film, and even at her worst, the audience roots for her. Simone Simon’s strong performance further lends her sympathy compared to the flat husband and his typical all-American girl co-worker. Irena is beautiful to be sure, but she is also intelligent and passionate. As she struggles, Oliver never convincingly tries to help her work through her problems. He wanted this ideal perfect wife and what he got was a complicated person, and he wasn’t prepared to deal with that.
Irena’s sexuality is nuanced and her crippling fear is less about her fear of sex but her fear of the consequences of sex. She wants to be intimate with her husband, but she cannot overcome her social conditioning from her homeland that has she believe this will bring about chaos. Female sexuality is seen as monstrous, something to be controlled or overcome. Irena’s sexuality is rooted in her exoticism, which in Hollywood was often shorthand for a different and threatening sexuality. Those who didn’t comfortably fit in the box of white American clean cut women were often fetishized. Their sexuality becomes dangerous and pathological for the men who were drawn in by them.
Rather than assuming the role of a femme fatale, Irena becomes a victim of society. Her husband’s journey is to overcome his “mistake” in trusting in someone outside of his pack, and Irena’s mistake was to trust him. The horror of the film comes as much from the idea that there is no happy solution to their marital problem as it does from the idea of a humanistic black panther roaming the streets. The clean solution of Irena’s death and Oliver’s new relationship suggests a sinister inability for men to face women as human beings, instead discarding those who seem strange or complicated in favor of something more familiar and safe in the confines of traditional gender expectations.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the former film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.