The opening scenes of A Cat in Paris follow a cat burglar named Nico on a jewel heist, depicting his movements with a sinuous grace that could only be achieved through hand-drawn animation. Nico practically flows through the hole he cuts in a window, and seemingly turns his joints to jelly to avoid security cameras and the two dim-witted security guards on duty. This opening scene’s ability to meld the serious, the comedic, and the slightly surreal are a harbinger of what is to come as the movie unfolds. Co-directed by Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol, A Cat in Paris turns out to be as lithe, agile, and sure-footed as its title character, yielding a powerful breath of fresh air when compared to the much more conventional offerings from the major American studios.
That title character lives a double life in Paris, engaging in grand larceny with Nico by night and returning home to a mute young girl named Zoé by day. Zoé has been silent ever since losing her father; her overworked mother Jeanne is a police superintendent determined to bring down both the mysterious jewel thief plaguing Paris and the gangster Victor Costa, who murdered her husband. Costa, who rides herd over a gaggle of idiotic gangsters, is himself planning one last big art heist. Of course, all these plots are bound to collide and send sparks everywhere, with the cat serving as a catalyst bringing them together. Where it goes and how it gets there both turn out to carry ample surprises and unexpected delights. There is enough offbeat humor to keep things from getting too dark, but also enough seriousness for us to believe something substantial is at stake.
Running just over an hour, A Cat in Paris is lean and efficient, deftly whipping through its slightly convoluted plot without a single misstep. It can easily move between the family drama of Jeanne and Zoé, the procedurals as the police chase down Nico and Costa, and the borderline slapstick comedy as Costa and his gang of morons try to plan their heist or try to overcome the obstacles the other characters often throw in their way. Even though characters are rendered with extreme simplicity, there is an incredible depth of character to each of them. Despite having less than a half-dozen lines of dialogue in the movie, Zoé is one of its most expressive characters as the subtlest changes in her expression reveal her inner mental state. Her facial features beautifully reflect her innate sensitivity and depth of feeling, ranging from her affection for her cat to her frustration with her mother. Nico’s scruffy appearance clearly pegs him as a rough-hewn gentleman just over the line on the wrong side of the tracks. He also moves so beautifully through the film that it’s always a joy to see him and the cat leaping and vaulting over the rooftops. Even Costa can be both credible comic relief and genuine threat, with a permanent scowl etched on his face and a bulky physique made for violent action.
The most striking thing about A Cat in Paris is its bold visual style, which deliberately flattens space and distorts perspective to throw everything pleasantly off-kilter. Characters are often wildly out of proportion, and characters seem to lose their joints once they start moving quickly. As animated films (especially of the CGI variety) seem to strive for increasing realism, it is quite refreshing to see an animated film deliberately being more abstract and less representational and fully exploiting the strengths of hand-drawn animation to do so. The style lends the entire movie a certain sense of the surreal, which makes its occasional flights of fancy or its visual digressions entirely credible. Twice in the movie, Jeanne envisions Costa as a menacing red octopus, and their interactions are an innovative way to reflect Jeanne’s shattered mental state under her veneer of calm. There is also an extremely odd sequence at the very end of the movie that is a daring way to depict one character’s mental state as it cracks under strain. My favorite sequence is one shot entirely in the dark, which turns characters into white outlines as they fumble around a room trying to find each other. It’s a beautiful visual shorthand for the sensation of being around in a dark room, while still allowing us to see the action as it unfolds. It’s also a trick that simply would not work in any cinematic medium other than hand-drawn animation. Indeed, the offbeat visual sensibility goes a long way to making the movie’s convoluted plot a bit more credible. If the movie’s visual style stretches the bounds of visual credibility, the movie’s plot happily does the same for narrative coherence, ensuring that both push well outside the bounds of realism while never feeling out of place.
A Cat in Paris comes in a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack, and the Blu-ray presents the movie beautifully, with rich textures and vibrant darks and shadows. The movie comes with both the original French soundtrack and a new English dub. Something about the movie’s offbeat sensibilities makes it seem more appropriate to hear in French to me, but the English dub is generally fine, especially in Steve Blum’s kindly gruff performance as Nico. The disc also comes with two extras beyond trailers. The first is the short film “The Extinction of the Saber-Toothed House Cat,” which is an extended build-up to an amusing punch line. The second is “The Many Lives of a Cat Video Flipbook,” a behind-the-scenes featurette which steps through concept art and earlier concepts for the movie. Even though this second extra is fairly minimalist (consisting only of title cards followed by sequences of images), I found this featurette to be much more personal than the usual talking heads EPK featurettes. The DVD and the Blu-ray both contain the both bonus features.
A Cat in Paris is refreshingly original as well as being another elegant testament to the power of hand-drawn animation. Its quirky sensibilities and unusual visual style make it a unique and idiosyncratic film that is an unalloyed delight to experience.