“How about some apple pie?” These words are spoken by Oliver Reed, the lead male character in Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942), as he contemplates the topsy-turvy nature of his marriage. A beautiful fashion designer, Irena Dubrovna (a Serbian immigrant), is his newly wedded bride, and she has irresistible warmth to which he is drawn. Even so, Oliver cannot understand her foreign paranoia about an innate, ancestral propensity to harm her lover, akin to being a descendant of the Serbian Cat People. Consequently, their marriage remains platonic.
Oliver seeks solace at a local diner, and his repeated dessert selection of apple pie represents his longing for a normal life and wife — as American as apple pie. He eventually succumbs to this desire. In spite of the extraordinary gentleness and patience initially displayed by Oliver, his marriage creates an unhappiness which he has not previously known. His American co-worker, Alice, seizes upon his discontentment to reveal her love for him. Alice relishes gobbling up her East European competition, Irena, just as Alice consumes Bavarian cream pie. The strained relationship of Irena and Oliver, and the barrier created by Alice, bears witness to the darker side of American immigration and assimilation. Oliver entered, and then walked away from the unfamiliar, unsettling world of Irena, that of the Cat People, and that of immigrants. At the same time, Irena fell prey to her unconquerable longing to retain her cultural heritage in the unyielding western society of America.
The legend of the Cat People is introduced by Irena when she divulges the significance of a Serbian King John statue spearing a panther, the biblical embodiment of evil. According to Irena, Serbians had relinquished proper Christian values and had become witches who bowed down to Satan, and said their masses to him, after cavorting with the Mameluk outsiders. The wisest and most wicked of these witches, from whom Irena traces her lineage, fled into the mountains upon the arrival of King John, escaping demise at his hand. Irena, a descendant of the Cat People, represents a witch who transfigures to a panther, trapped in a cage of alienation as an immigrant whose cultural heritage does not conform to the American norm. Her fear to become fully intimate with Oliver symbolizes her reluctance to become fully submerged in domesticated American culture.
Director Tourneur utilizes the rich imagery of the King John legend and the Cat People throughout the film. As Irena reveals her heritage, it is important to note that she is standing directly under a painting which includes cats, one of which resembles a panther. Irena is fascinated by the caged panther at the zoo and associates the female-like screams with her own feelings of entrapment. The zookeeper tries to correct her notions of the panther being beautiful. “No, he ain’t beautiful. He’s an evil critter ma’am. You read your Bible.” This alludes to the “good” King John speech, suggesting that which is foreign to western Christian culture is deemed evil. While pet shopping, the shopkeeper indirectly likens Irena to an alley cat which is “just not right.” The tamed house cats represent well behaved American immigrants who have converted to American values, forgoing their “evil” foreign ways.
Irena is a wild cat, one that cannot be domesticated, yet she is trying desperately in vain to live beside the “normal” cats. Finally, when all else fails, Oliver demands Irena look not towards mythology for resolution, but rather seek help from a psychiatrist. Dr. Judd, the psychiatrist, proves to have more similarity to King John than less. He demands that Irena cleanse herself of her ancient customs and give up her “silly” fairytale delusions, otherwise he might be forced to have her locked away. The only difference between King John and Dr. Judd is that Judd tackles cleansing from a purely mental state without regard to the spiritual side. Ironically, he is forced to later defend himself from Cat Irena using a sword cane which bears distinct resemblance to the sword that the King John statue holds as he is slaying the demonic and “cleansing” Serbia. It’s also worth noting that Irena has a nightmare in which Dr. Judd is dressed in medieval attire, again tying the King and the doctor to a singular purpose. All of this symbolism weaves together a tragic tale of a lovely woman who remains in lonely silence — a silence that she attempts to convince herself she loves.
The current relevance of Cat People is twofold. It is a precursor of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon and reflects contemporary political apprehension about immigration into America. Both films revolve around jealous women beholding witch-like characteristics. Irena states “I envy every woman I see on the street. I envy them. They are happy. They make their husbands happy. They lead normal happy lives. They are free.” With similar intensity, Ruby and her two friends feel resentment towards Jesse in The Neon Demon. Irene covets the normalcy of other women, while Ruby and associates covet Jesse’s beauty. Both Ruby and Irena obsess so much over the women they resent, they stalk them and metaphorically, if not literally, turn into giant, wild cats.
In regards to modern day politics, Cat People captures the anti-immigration fervor of the 2016 American presidential campaign and election. Viewing many immigrants as “just not right,” America recently voted for American pie. Many may be looking for the new president to be King John and the new vice-president to be Dr. Judd, and many feel apprehensive about this, too. When reflecting upon Thanksgiving celebrations, those who are free count their blessings. Those who feel trapped inside or outside borders may wish for zoo keepers and pet shop owners to broaden their perspectives, even if King John and Dr. Judd rule. All may ask themselves if they are Oliver.
Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.