Lonely, lovelorn Chloe (Garance Clavel) hates the daily grind of her makeup job at a snooty fashion agency and decides to take a holiday. Her gay flatmate Michel (Olivier Py), who just split from his lover, won’t look after Chloe’s beloved cat Gris-Gris, so she leaves him with absent-minded Madame Renée (Renée Le Calm). Upon returning home, Chloe finds her cat has disappeared, but it isn’t long before a whole neighbourhood of colourful characters are involved in the search, with some calamities, romance and heartbreak along the way.
A buoyant, heart-warming, observational comedy of the kind French cinema does so well, When the Cat’s Away brought the idiosyncratic Cédric Klapisch his first international success. Klapisch originally intended this to be a twenty-minute short film, but after recognising what a wealth of material he had with the minor characters (a mix of professional actors and scene-stealing amateurs, essentially playing themselves), expanded it to feature length. Some critics feel this worked to the film’s detriment as the large array of eccentrics (particularly the army of elderly women recruited to find Gris-Gris) tend to dominate proceedings, while the main players disappear from view for long stretches.
Yet upon closer inspection the episodic narrative is far from haphazard and works quite beautifully. Cloistered in her flat with the detached Michel (whose signature statement is “it’s no big deal”, as he casts boyfriends aside and keeps his flatmate at arm’s length), it seems as if Chloe’s cat is her only source of intimacy. The search for Gris-Gris leads her away from the confined apartment into a wide world populated by lively, engaging oddballs, opening her eyes as the film becomes a hymn to community.
There are laugh out loud gags and some low-key tragicomedy, mostly courtesy of poor, simpleminded Djamel (Zinedine Soualem) and his hopeless attempts to romance Chloe; plus the moment our shy heroine dons a sexy dress for a night on the town, only to suffer unwanted advances from drunken lechers and a lesbian barmaid. A few racist remarks and characters’ tendency to make Djamel the butt of their jokes may leave us uncomfortable, but Klapisch accepts people as they are - faults and all. Paths intersect, fresh information illuminates hitherto unnoticed characters, occasionally mistakes are made, but there remains the promise of hope.
It’s contemporary, metropolitan life, sometimes funny, sometimes sad. Klapisch’s real success lies in his way with fragmented details: the old woman who rings every night because she wants attention, the chatty shopkeeper full of “useful” advice, the beautiful model who is still insecure about her looks, and Chloe’s dream guy (The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) star Romain Duris) who turns out to be a love rat. This was an early role for Duris, who became a regular in Klapisch’s films, including his sci-fi oddity Peut-être (1999) with Jean-Paul Belmondo. Filmed with panache and full of real joie de vivre, it leaves the viewer feeling much like Chloe as she runs through the streets with romantic glee. The excellent, eclectic soundtrack features everything from Chopin to Al Green, French hip-hop to Portishead.