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Under the Radar: 'The Strange Little Cat' review

★★★★☆
Every film festival has that one rough diamond, lurking deep within the recesses of its colossal programme, that everyone's desperate to unearth. At this year's Berlinale, that gem was The Strange Little Cat (Das merkwürdige Kätzchen, 2013), the first film to be reviewed in our newly launched 'Under the Radar' strand. In fact, one US writer was so enamoured with the film that he reputedly bought tickets to all four of its public screenings. Directed by Ramon Zürcher and conceived at a seminar held by illustrious Hungarian director Béla Tarr, The Strange Little Cat is a timid domestic chamber piece, loosely adapted from Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis.

Set almost entirely within the four walls of an orthodox Berlin apartment, siblings Karin (Anjorka Strechel) and Simon (Luk Pfaff) have arrived at their parent's house for a gathering that embraces three generations of their family. However, despite this cosy apartment converting into a hive of activity, everyone appears to be peculiarly forlorn, culminating in a bustling home of curiously gregarious recluses. From Clara (Mia Kasalo), the youngest member of the family and her compulsion to scream once any kitchen appliance is in use, to the family's anxious dog who growls whenever the film's titular feline purrs, each character in Zürcher's delicately fashioned middle-class household has their own eccentric yet endearing peculiarities.

A film with little to no actual plot, The Strange Little Cat captivates you through its simple, yet intelligent observations, whether it be a simple metaphysical quandary about why orange peel always falls pith side up or a conversation about the carcinogenic perils of using cheap tools. Fashioning an enthralling slice of everyday life, this immersive experience is only heightened by Zürcher's use of static, chest height shots, that culminate in a sense of being right at the dinner table observing this intriguing domestic arrangement. With an economical runtime of 72 minutes, The Strange Little Cat may adhere to the formula of a TV soap opera, but offers up far more than your average, bog-standard telenovela.

Thanks to Zürcher's sophisticated choreography, we witness a fascinating domestic dance which sees character effortlessly glide across each others path's with an charming grace and elegance - culminating in a carefully orchestrated household ballet of despondency delightfully soundtracked by a haunting minimalist score from Thee More Shallows. However, the film's dialogue lacks such bravura as each witty discourse is diluted by a series of deadpan asides, with each character's outspoken proclamations often fading into a personal monologue. This elusive ambiance of melancholy culminates in a gently simmering pressure cooker of domiciliary tension, with the household's matriarchal figurehead the foremost casualty with her life having become little more than a joyless series of spirit crushing tête-à-têtes.

A conveyor belt of subtle humiliations, the piercing observations that litter Zürcher's The Strange Little Cat's script more than make up for its lack of tangible drama. Thankfully, what we're left with is a tenderly hypnotic, delicately potent and beautifully efficient slice of contemporary life that as an example of minimalist cinema is an exemplary feat in independent filmmaking.

For more information about The Strange Little Cat (Das merkwürdige Kätzchen, 2013), visit berlinale.de.

Patrick Gamble
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