When the Cat's Away

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Although the title of French filmmaker Cédric Klapisch's new feature may suggest Continental frou-frou, if not flat-out ooh-la-la, it's actually a sly and satisfying low-key look at mundane alienation and dubious connections made in a modern (i.e., rapidly changing) Parisian neighborhood.

Chloé (Garance Clavel) is a young makeup artist who longs to get away from the city for a couple weeks and needs someone to take care of her beloved cat Gris-Gris. As a last resort she leaves the animal with a neighboring cat lady (Renée Le Calm), a feisty but well-meaning senior with a feline menagerie. Naturally, when Chloé returns from her vacation, kitty is missing. This sets the plot in motion as Chloé begins to enlist several locals in a concentrated cat hunt.

But the movie isn't about cats, or missing cats, or even cat fanciers. It's about what happens to Chloé, who seems practically drugged with anomie at the story's start, once her situation forces her to discover her surroundings and the characters who inhabit it. She learns that the cat lady is part of a network of old-timers who are, each in their own way, eccentric with age.

She is gently dogged by a mildly retarded young man who is treated with casual cruelty by his friends. She meets a handsome stranger and learns a hard lesson about the dangers of charm. In short, her life opens up.

It's a testament to Klaspisch's respect for his audience that while he loads his story with unexpected turns, he avoids contrivances -- and that while he touches on homophobia, racism, ageism and other modern sins, the touch is always a glancing one. His approach suggests a sort of updated New Wave, combining Truffaut's shaggy dog romanticism with Godard's formalist insouciance.

Typical of the film's structural wit is the depiction of Chloé's much-desired vacation: a brief insert of her in a boundless blue sea, seeming extremely bored.

Cat is a small film by a large talent, one who has carefully crafted an ironic look at life in the big city and then laced it with a surprising amount of feeling.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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