The ginger tabby seen slinking about in Ramon Zurcher’s delightfully aloof first feature is probably the least strange thing about “The Strange Little Cat.” Simultaneously rigorous and open-ended, the German-schooled helmer’s playfully constructed debut turns the cozy world of a middle-class Berlin apartment inside out, studying its assorted human inhabitants and guests as if they were members of an alien species. With its peculiar angles and curious sensitivity to certain feelings seldom captured onscreen, the film eschews plot for wryly observed character moments, serving up an arthouse-ready Rorschach test that ensures no two viewers will have the same reaction.
Certainly, in the year since this unconventional domestic drama first surfaced at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival, cineastes have been tripping over themselves to pinpoint which helmers may have influenced Zurcher, citing everyone from Chantal Akerman to Jacques Tati, ultimately revealing more about their own creative diets in the process. Meanwhile, the director has admitted only that the project began as a very loose cinematic interpretation of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” as reconceived in a workshop run by Bela Tarr. Virtually all that remains of that novella is the moth, which, like the film’s eponymous feline, flits in and out of certain scenes otherwise reserved for the seemingly typical German family of 10.
The apartment is just big enough to accommodate this group, who crowd together in the kitchen or squeeze past one another in the halls. The cat scratches at the door of a bedroom, wanting in. They share the bathroom and undress unself-consciously in front of one another. While the characters seem comfortable with this space, the camera never does. D.p. Alexander Hasskerl’s framing always feels slightly “off,” cropping heads or leaving whoever’s speaking out of the image entirely — which can only be by design.
At one point, a neighbor boy accidentally tosses a ball through the window, breaking the invisible barrier between public and private. We sense the communality of the space, but also the difficulty these characters face trying to find solitude in such a shared environment. On several occasions, the camera observes people silently eavesdropping on someone else’s assumed solitude.
The central figure, to the extent that the film provides one, is known only as Mother (Jenny Schily, austerely Tilda Swinton-esque). There’s a numb detachment in the way this woman tends to her quotidian duties, a vaguely dissociative quality at odds with her role as the family’s axis, as if she’s not entirely responsible for her actions — reinforced in a rather alarming moment when she lifts her foot above the unsuspecting cat’s head, as though contemplating whether she could crush it, or during a flashback when she describes going to the movies and being unable to react when the stranger in the next seat rested his foot against her. (Zurcher re-creates the scene, showing only her frozen expression, not the man who invaded her personal space.)
The director has described the film as “a horror movie without any horror,” though it is also a comedy without any actual jokes. While the humor arises from askew-yet-true observations (as in an odd digression about orange peels), the source of the suspense is a bit trickier to pin down — calling to mind, for this critic at least, Michael Haneke’s “The Seventh Continent,” in which an Austrian family violently purges its own existence from society.
In lieu of a score, the helmer opens the film with “Pulchritude,” a hypnotic yet semi-agitated string piece from Thee More Shallows, returning to the same track several more times over the course of the breezy 70-minute running time. This music stands in contrast with the symphony of domestic sounds, especially the deafening grind of kitchen appliances, which invariably provoke even louder screams from youngest daughter Clara (Mia Kasalo). The characters speak, but don’t actually seem to be communicating, as when Father (Matthias Dittmer) mentions a narrowly averted car accident, prompting his wife to offer a cup of coffee where concern might have been more appropriate.
Some audiences won’t pick up on the film’s subtle tension at all (blood, when it appears, is just an everyday bother, nothing to worry about). The film may even play as boring, or strictly comedic, to those who interpret its seemingly mundane scenes differently. Whatever Zurcher’s intent, his film proves singularly attuned to a range of seldom-expressed dynamics of the contemporary Western family. Beneath the catalog-perfect exterior, small fissures suggest an alternative to Clara’s crayon drawings or the candid snapshots her older sister (Anjorka Strechel) flashes at times. Despite all that it withholds, “The Strange Little Cat” ultimately proves a far more revealing form of family portrait.