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Memphis Flyer Summer Searches

By Hadley Hury

Cats. They're Everywhere.

AUGUST 11, 1997:  As anyone who is owned by a cat will tell you, even when a cat is out of sight it is not wholly out of mind. Although the title character of When the Cat's Away is lost for most of the film and therefore has very little actual screen time, its relationship to its designated human (a young woman named Chloe, played by Garance Clavel) is what chiefly informs this wistful little comedy written and directed by Cedric Klapisch and set in Paris.

The world is, of course, essentially divided into two camps: (1) those who relate to, enjoy, and respect the independence of cats and their tendency to bestow affection on their own terms; and (2) those who are affronted and or threatened by these characteristics. The first group is composed of folks who are intelligent and honest; they are unafraid to look life in the eye and are possessed of a becoming sense of modesty about their position in the universal scheme of things. The second group is characterized by lacking senses of both humor and irony; they're highly egocentric, needy, and may frequently be found swathed in chocolate Labradors or golden retrievers.

As the film opens, Chloe is almost too perfect a cat person -- too unassuming, too willing to demand nothing of life and conscientiously act according to what life demands of her. When she goes away to the beach for a brief August vacation, her cat Gris Gris disappears from the cat-sitter's apartment. The ensuing search of her Paris neighborhood becomes a rite-of-passage for Chloe, a picaresque search for a stronger, less passive self.

In her quest to find the missing Gris Gris, she becomes more assertive about her own emotional needs -- in her dealings in the workplace (she does makeup for fashion showings and shoots), with her roommate (Olivier Py), and in how she negotiates the Parisian singles scene.

Clavel's performance is, like the film as a whole, innocently wide-eyed and charmingly understated. We begin to root for Chloe. She's an attractive, rather lonely young woman and she's not bothering a soul and, by gosh, it just crosses some sort of unacceptable boundary that her one true soul-mate, Gris Gris, is missing. It's just a bit existentially de trop. Like the network of neighbors who take up Chloe's search with her, we are drawn by Clavel's delicate, winsome screen presence; it sustains interest throughout the film's leisurely 85 minutes.

Klapisch uses a few non-actors and scene improvisations which enhance the story's casual naturalism. If some viewers find it a bit too aimless, others will revel in its intelligent simplicity and slightly lyricized verite -- and the total absence of gunfire, car chases, and special effects. The film -- which won the International Critics Award at the Berlin Film Festival -- is in French with English subtitles. (Its original title, Son Chat Chacun Cerche, would more appropriately be translated as something like "Everyone Searches for One's Cat"). From the opening titles sequence to the end credits, the soundtrack abounds with good music, ranging from classic soul to some particularly festive new French hip-hop.

Picture Perfect Isn't.

It feels like an also-ran coming on the heels of the year's earlier, and better, romantic comedies -- Jerry Maguire and My Best Friend's Wedding. Picture Perfect, written by Glenn Gordon Caron, Arleen Sorkin, and Paul Slansky and directed by Caron, generally skirts the dramatic shadings of those two films, and since it is television's Friends' Jennifer Aniston's showcase leap to the big screen, it was wise to do so. Aniston is built for light comedy -- physically, vocally, and in terms of general screen appeal. She manages to carry the picture, but that's damning with faint praise, and she does so with a notably spare actor's vocabulary of TV-sitcom facial expressions and gesticulations.

Aniston plays Kate, a bright young woman seeking to get ahead in an advertising agency. In the silly, romantic course of things, Kate must cope with one colleague who is a charming sexual predator (Kevin Bacon), a boss who takes his role as corporate paterfamilias to extremes, and a love-interest (Jay Mohr) whom she must dupe in order to fulfill her professional ambition. It's all fairly lighthearted, but there is an unmistakable whiff of '90s retro-feminism; wiles and cleavage seem to edge out competence and integrity. Like My Best Friend's Wedding, Jerry Maguire, and to a degree even The Mirror Has Two Faces, this script owes a debt to the screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s. The debt is not very admirably discharged. Aniston has a certain appeal, a sort of working-gal feistiness. But her persona doesn't have the strength to make up for the script's contrivances and mixed signals. Some viewers may find themselves wistfully imagining what Barbara Stanwyck might have done with the role.

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