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Moses, the handsome feline of the title in Austrian writer-director Handl Klaus’ Tomcat, is described by a dinner guest as “the pasha of the house,” and it’s true he not only rules his domain, he also owns every scene. Sleeping, yawning, stretching, licking his paws or prowling the garden for prey, he’s the very picture of contentment and a delight to watch. But idyllic situations rarely remain undisturbed for long in Euro art movies, and this one is shattered by a sudden, unfathomable act of violence that calls into question everything one of the cat’s owners feels for and thinks he knows about the other.
That might have been the basis for an intense psychological probe in other hands. But Handl — he flips his birth name as an artistic signature; is that the new lower-case? — is so intent on removing dramatic artifice to focus on raw feeling that the film’s intimacy becomes neither illuminating nor interesting. It’s quite beautifully crafted on a technical level, filling the widescreen canvas with images of startling clarity, drenched in soft natural light. But it’s also agonizingly slow and uninvolving.
The director started out as an actor, and has appeared in two films by Michael Haneke, adding to the impression he’s aiming for the kind of stark, penetrating psychodrama in which Haneke excels. But Tomcat is far too studied and self-important, its seriousness becoming increasingly dour as it grinds on for close to two hours.
Even the opening half-hour, which is upbeat to a fault, is overstretched. Stefan (Lukas Turtur) and Andreas (Philipp Hochmair) live in ecstatic harmony in a home out of a design catalog in the leafy outer suburbs of Vienna. Stefan plays French horn in the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and Andreas is part of the organization’s management. The other musicians lend a clubby camaraderie to their social circle.
The film’s very European frankness about sex and nudity draws attention to itself — Look! Bobbing erections! — but serves to illustrate the relaxed physicality of Andreas and Stefan’s relationship. They seem to spend all their time at home naked, getting it on to Miles Davis in a cringey scene, or just cradling each other’s penises like cute pets. They’re in equal harmony with the natural world, picking berries and plums for the table from their garden or mushrooms from the woods. They even try to share their connubial bliss by helping to loosen up Lorenz (Thomas Stipsits), the shy clarinetist, who’s in a much more guarded relationship with morose Russian bassoonist Vladimir (Manuel Ripley).
After a half-hour of this domestic paradise you’re craving conflict like water in a desert. Stefan obliges when he’s sitting at the table (naked, natch), idly stroking Moses. A sudden move from the cat makes him react with an uncontrolled violent impulse. Afterwards, he can neither explain nor understand it, and Andreas can’t bear to look at or talk to him, let alone share his bed. We know the relationship is broken because they both start wearing underwear. Also, the source music (the film has no score) shifts from sexy Ravel to miserable Schubert, despairing Bach and tortured Janacek. And in one of several blunt visual metaphors, even nature turns on them when Stefan falls from a ladder while picking plums.
That severe accident scares Andreas into breaking his silence and lowering his walls. But the healing process is long and complicated, with the trauma resurfacing in their lives at intervals without warning. The central issue, even after Stefan has ostensibly been forgiven, is Andreas’ anxiety over whether or not he’ll ever again be able to have sex with his partner. Can he accept this terrifying, unknowable part of the man he loves? Oh, and whatever progress they’ve made turns tricky when the neighbors get an adorable new cat.
Handl puts all the pieces in place for a consideration of the lasting impact on a happy union of impulse control disorder and the inescapable fears it sparks of repeat behavior. But in the film’s rigorous avoidance of psychological didacticism, it neglects to offer anything else of substance. Instead, we get a dramatically inert eternity of Stefan and Andreas mourning what they had and may have lost forever, a pain not just internalized but one that racks their bodies. Hochmair and Turner could not be more fully committed to their roles, but this is an artsy, self-indulgent film that yields little in the way of insight or emotion.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Special)
Production company: Coop99 Filmproduktion
Cast: Lukas Turtur, Philipp Hochmair, Thomas Stipsits, Manuel Rubey
Director-screenwriter: Handl Klaus
Producers: Antonin Svoboda, Bruno Wagner
Director of photography: Gerald Kerkletz
Production designer: Enid Loser
Costume designer: Tanja Hausner
Editor: Joana Scrinzi
Sales: Films Distribution
Not rated, 114 minutes.
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