Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat makes mince of expectations, savoring the delicate upsetting of filmmaking’s possibilities. In its opening minutes, the titular orange tabby paws at a door, opening its mouth to meow. Zürcher matches the shot with an off-screen sound cue of a family’s youngest daughter, Clara (Mia Kasalo), screeching in tune with a kitchen appliance. It’s a disarming effect. At first we think the kitty has the voice of a wailing child—strange, indeed—only to realize that Zürcher is cuing us to his next scene, simultaneously collapsing and expanding the space of the smallish family apartment in which the bulk of the film, excluding some anecdotal flashbacks, unfolds. Bucking a tradition running from The Exterminating Angel to Carnage, The Strange Little Cat makes its single setting feel roomy and accommodating, relieving the strain of suffocation that typically grips films set in confined spaces.
The tone-setting introduction exhibits a wonky precision that characterizes Zürcher’s debut, a film of overlapping sound design, carefully manicured frames, curiously configured shot/reverse-shots, and controlled minimalism. If his approach possesses its own diegetic analogue, it’s not the cat slinking in and out of the frame, but a “magic bottle” that recurs throughout—a glass container which, when filled with just the right amount of water, appears to wobble continually inside of a kitchen pot. The fastidiousness of Zürcher’s craft is offset a bit by the breezy interplay of his cast, playing the members of three generations of a middle-class family gathering for a dinner. (To revise a line from The Simpsons, The Strange Little Cat doesn’t so much reek of effort as exude whiffs of it.) As the characters joke, quarrel, and wipe sausage splashback off their shirts, Zürcher plays particular attention to the tiny details of their environment: a loose screw rattling inside a washing machine, a grocery list, a moth flitting about from room to room, and of course, that darn cat.
As pleasant and effortless as Zürcher makes his formal persnicketiness and Akermanian aesthetic rigor seem, his film feels lightweight; it’s zero-calorie, dissolve-on-the-tongue-type stuff. As the characters reveal little beyond their ability to choreograph their own movements within a relatively small space, The Strange Little Cat becomes a film that’s easier to admire than actually enjoy. It’s agreeable enough watching the family reveal bits about themselves through digressive stories, but the film is never able to escape its mannered, quotidian setup (not that I’m certain it’d even want to). Ultimately, even at a short 72 minutes, it feels like that magic bottle revolving in a pot: gyrating lopsided on its own axis, spinning and spinning and spinning until it exhausts its momentum, and our patience.