The Amazing Cat Fish (Los Insolitos peces gatos): Locarno Review

Cine Canibal
"The Amazing Cat Fish"
Claustrophobic tale of family, mortality and eccentricity starts edgy, ends soapy.

Ximena Ayala and Lisa Owen star in Mexican writer-director Claudia Sainte-Luce's debut, premiering in a competitive sidebar at the Swiss festival.

Water proves no thinner than blood in The Amazing Cat Fish (Los Insolitos peces gatos), a Mexican/French arthouse tearjerker which marks the waywardly promising feature-debut of writer-director Claudia Sainte-Luce. Like its eccentric heroine, the tale of a twentysomething loner's absorption into a lovingly chaotic family becomes more conventional as it progresses, resulting in a picture that's too self-consciously offbeat for mainstream audiences but ultimately too soft-edged to inspire the critical support needed to break out of the festival circuit.

World-premiering at Locarno before heading to Toronto, it could with suitable marketing find some kind of domestic niche during its projected late-autumn release, with potential low-key crossover into other Spanish-speaking markets. There's also distinct English-language remake potential in a story which faintly echoes 1983's Emmy-winning Who Will Love My Children? 

Once again, we have an ailing mother planning ahead for her soon-to-be-bereaved brood. The doomed parent here is serenely happy-go-lucky Martha (Lisa Owen), who's had four children with three different fathers and picked up an unspecified terminal malady from her last husband. When she isn't undergoing treatment, the genial widow resides in a cozy city-centre apartment with her quartet of squabbling kids, who range in age from pre-teen to early twenties.

During one hospital stay, Martha befriends appendicitis patient Claudia (Ximena Ayala), whom we've previously seen skulking in her dankly scuzzy, almost cave-like dwelling in a gloomy part of town. Claudia ekes out a living in a Wal-Mart-type store, tempting customers with free samples - unlikely work for a barely socialized young woman who lives so much in her own world, and whose interpersonal awkwardness suggests a mild version of Asperger's Syndrome.

Unfortunately this isn't the only aspect of Sainte-Luce's screenplay to smack of scriptwriting contrivance - most damagingly, it's never really established why Martha is so very keen for Claudia to join her clan, fashioning a role that's somewhere between surrogate offspring and future mother-substitute for the youngsters. The lass is hardly much of a 'bread-winner', and Martha's eldest, Alejandra, appears quite capable of raising her siblings. It's also never explained why this family, despite the radiant Martha's evident generosity of spirit, exists in such a vacuum: no family, no neighbors, no friends.

But even if we neither quite buy the basic set-up nor its development, a convincing atmosphere of household hubbub is consistently conveyed by Barbara Enriquez's production-design and sound by Frederic le Louet and Vincent Arnardi. The more youthful members of the cast bring lively verisimilitude to the chatterbox family's internal dynamics, while revered veteran French cinematographer Agnes Godard captures how Martha's place can sometimes seem a claustrophobic trap, sometimes a nurturing nest.

The relatively inexperienced Sainte-Luce's contributions are rather less sure-footed, however, and she does lays the sentimentality on surprisingly thickly in the latter stages, with the score by "Madame Recamier," previously very sparingly deployed, now double-underlining the bittersweetness of it all. Sainte-Luce's tendency towards an arch kind of self-aware quirkiness is exemplified by the mannerism of a dialogue-free opening seven minutes, and extends to The Amazing Cat Fish's attention-grabbing title - taken from a mysterious decal adorning the family aquarium.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Filmmakers of the Present), Aug. 17 2013
Production company: Cine Canibal
Cast: Ximena Ayala, Lisa Owen, Wendy Guillen, Alejandro Ramirez-Munoz, Sonia Franco, Andrea Baeza
Director / Screenwriter: Claudia Sainte-Luce
Producer: Geminiano Pineda
Executive producers: Ruby Castillo, Christian Kregel, Philippe Akoka, Alain Peyrollaz
Director of photography: Agnes Godard
Production designer: Barbara Enriquez
Costume designer: Gabriela Fernandez
Editor: Santiago Ricci
Music: Madame Recamier
Sales: Pyramide, Paris
No MPAA rating, 91 minutes

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