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Salt Lake City Weekly When the Cat's Away

A gem that stems urban lonliness to make a real connection.

By Mary Dickson

AUGUST 25, 1997:  When the Cat's Away is a wonderful slice of Parisian life that is both breezy and emotionally astute. French filmmaker Cedric Klapisch takes a Parisian neighborhood in the changing Bastille district and peoples it with realistically eccentric characters who worm their way into your heart.

His charming film, recognized by the International Critics Association at the Berlin Film Festival, takes a while to get started, but becomes thoroughly engaging once you settle into its pace.

The concept is simple: When she goes on vacation, a lonely young makeup artist named Chloe leaves her black cat, Gris-Gris, with an old woman on the block who has six cats of her own and cat-sits more. When Chloe returns from vacation, Madame Renee, the cat-sitter, breaks the bad news that Gris-Gris is lost. Madame Renee is devastated that a cat has disappeared on her watch — she's never lost one before — and immediately activates her city-wide network of cat lovers.

The search for Gris-Gris involves not only Madame Renee's cat lovers, but the people in Chloe's diverse and low-income neighborhood, which is being demolished in the name of progress. Immigrants, shop-owners, old women, Generation Xers, and workmen take an interest in the lost cat. But no one is more avid in the hunt than Madame Renee's young friend Djamel, the brain-injured Iraniian she nursed back to health after he fell off a roof as a child. Djamel completely devotes himself to the search and will go to any lengths — or heights — to find Chloe's Gris-Gris, as the wrecking ball fells more Bastille buildings.

A simple story, yes, but deftly told by Kaplisch, who strikes just the right balance and tone in this character-driven gem. You certainly don't have to be a cat lover to appreciate When the Cat's Away. This search is for more than a lost cat. For Chloe and the others, from Madame Renee to Djamel, it's a matter of stemming urban lonliness and making some sort of connection. Their search party develops into a community all its own. People Chloe's co-workers dismiss as old ladies and simpletons become her closest friends. And the lonely Chloe, who longs for a boyfriend, finds one when she least expects it.

When the Cat's Away
A Parisian Odyssey: Chloe (Garance Clavel) endures the lost-cat blues in When the Cat's Away
Directed by
Cedric Klapisch
Garance Clavel
Zenedrine Soualem
Madam Renee

Kaplisch casts the winsome young French actress Garance Clavel as Chloe, the woman looking for her cat, a boyfriend and a social life. Clavel, who's a far-more-beguiling and natural actress than the overly-touted Liv Tyler, comes across as a true innocent. She nervously bites her lower lip and looks on the verge of tears much of the time, but she's strikingly beautiful. Her Chloe is a wispy young girl who is appealingly shy. She hides her thin body in awkward ensembles of clunky boots, dark socks, khaki dresses and old sweaters.

The sleek models she makes up and her co-workers tell her she could try harder to be a "turn-on." Her gay roommate (Olivier Py) concurs, so she tries on one outfit after another for his input before venturing out for an evening. When she follows the roommate's advice, puts on a fetching little dress and piles her hair on her head, she's like prey at the bar — an unnerving experience. The woman who rescues her turns out to be as predatory as the men. No wonder Chloe is only more alienated by her forays into the Parisian singles scene. She'd like to meet someone, but it's a dangerous and disorienting market out there.

When she seeks solace from her roommate, he asks her, "Why do you like fags?" "It's never ambiguous," she responds, which is basically another word for "safe." They're both hoping to find the right man, though Chloe is less adept at that kind of search than is her roommate. She's like a lost and confused little waif on the streets of the world's most romantic city. Chloe's relationship with her roommate, like all the relationships in Klapsich's film, is sweetly rendered, though never sentimental.

Zenedrine Soualem, for instance, is marvelously understated as the simple-minded Samaritan, Djamel, who develops a major infatuation with the ceaselessly patient Chloe. He's like a lost puppy. Once she pets him (figuratively, of course), he won't stop following her. The men at the neighborhood bar tease him about his girlfriend, as they would tease a child. While their taunting is generally offset by affection, an off-handed remark about part of his missing brain leaves Djamel in tears. No one knows his limitations better than he. When he watches Chloe's obvious enthusiasm for a possible suitor, he's dashed again. "Life is unfair," he mutters. Indeed it is. The most deserving contenders often go unrewarded.

Madame Renee is another marvelous character. An old woman who lives with cats in a dirty apartment that she never gets around to cleaning, she's always in the market for a friend. And Chloe is as accepting of the wild-haired, gravely voiced Madame Renee as she is of Djamel. Under Kaplisch's nimble direction, these characters are never caricatures. They're the people you see everyday in an inner city. In fact, many of the characters, including Madame Renee, aren't actors but are people playing themselves. The Bastille's Madame Renee actually does house-sit vacationer's cats, and Kaplisch based When the Cat's Away, which he originally intended as a short film, on actual incidents.

Old ladies and even street people play themselves as well, which lends to the film's ring of authenticity. Even Chloe's cat is played by the actress' own cat. And, many of the scenes were improvised, which accounts for much of the film's irresistable spontaneity and freshness This is slice-of-life cinema at its best. The streets of Paris have never been more inviting. When the Cat's Away is the kind of art-house film that never sticks around long, so if you miss it, add it to your video rental list.

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