Review: ‘Cat Swallows Parakeet and Speaks!’

The nonsensically titled "Cat Swallows Parakeet and Speaks!" is an intriguing experimental narrative that explores female body issues within the bounds of expressionist whimsy. In latter aspect, Ileana Pietrobruno's feature invites comparison to fellow Canuck helmer Guy Maddin --- though the appeal here may be even more esoteric, theatrically speaking, than he's risked.

The nonsensically titled “Cat Swallows Parakeet and Speaks!” is an intriguing experimental narrative that explores female body issues within the bounds of expressionist whimsy. In latter aspect, Ileana Pietrobruno’s feature invites comparison to fellow Canuck helmer Guy Maddin — though the appeal here may be even more esoteric, theatrically speaking, than he’s risked. Cinematheques and women-in-film showcases rep the best offshore chances for this promising debut.

Scheherazade (Tara Frederick) is a famous model who’s entered a fanciful hospital-cum-asylum to have an ulcer removed — though tabloids speculate her surgery is of a more cosmetic nature. Dr. Storey (Alex Ferguson) unnerves with his obsessive attentions; she suspects “the weaker I get, the more turned-on he is.” S. befriends another patient, anorexic ballerina Kore (Rebecca Godin), who believes she gains weight while sleeping and thus persuades the heroine to tie her down at night.

Motifs from “Arabian Nights” and “Snow White” surface en route to a murkily happy ending, though they’re no more direct than the writer-director’s skewed deployment of eating disorders, bodily decay, and so on.

Pietrobruno doesn’t always seem in control of her desired tone — some sequences seem aimless — yet the mixed morbidity, fantasticism and quirky humor works surprisingly well on whole. There’s a certain poignance to the haplessness and desperation of protags, who’ve lost control of their physical (and, perhaps, mental) health. Progress elsewhere is sometimes quite funny in an outre manner, especially the stand-out sequence wherein a fellow inmate (Christine Taylor) relates how PMS drove her to murderous mayhem.

Despite the queasiness of some themes here, atmosphere is dreamlike, often poetical — even when two women find themselves swimming in a roomful of menstrual blood, one among several oddly sensuous setpieces. Pietrobruno has a real eye, with handsomely composed, primarily B&W imagery abetted by brief color and vid-shot footage. Tech package is nicely handled all around, from the crumbling “hospital’s” imaginative prod design to use of gamelan-inspired music.

Cat Swallows Parakeet and Speaks!

Canada

Production

An Ileana Pietrobruno production. Produced, directed, written by Pietrobruno.

With

Tara Frederick (Scheherazade), Rebecca Godin (Kore), Alex Ferguson (Dr. Storey), Christine Taylor, Christine Taylor, Mina E. Mina, Margot Platts.
Camera (color/B&W, 16mm), John Houtman; editing, Pietrobruno; production design, Athena Wong, Bo Myers; sound, Eva Madden. Reviewed at San Francisco Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, June 23, 1997. Running time: 75 MIN.
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