This is a fascinating film – indeed, it is the first truly intelligent special-effects blockbuster since The Matrix (1999). But, in bravely venturing into the largely uncharted world of the superheroine in pop culture, it goes well beyond the reassuring myths that even the best action-entertainments peddle.
This is probably why the film received a very mixed reception overseas – and why even its Australian distributor seemed to want to hide it from critics. However, if Catwoman courts occasional incoherence, that is not because of any fault or lack in the filmmaking, but because of the mind-boggling possibilities it tackles.
Patience (Halle Berry in an extraordinary performance) is a frustrated and rather shy artist who has settled for a job designing advertisements for the cosmetics firm Hedare. As her voiceover narration tell us up-front, she is literally going to have to die to be reborn as a new woman. Patience's big problem arrives when she stumbles upon tasty revelations of corruption within Hedare – masterminded by the unlovely couple at the corporation's helm, George (Lambert Wilson) and Laurel (Sharon Stone).
Fortunately, by the time Patience (in Camille Paglia's immortal phrase) "hits the wall of reality", she has already been chosen as a special being by a cat with super powers. Thus Patience is reborn as Catwoman – a woman with vast appetites and a political conscience. Unlike Spider-Man, her immediate agenda is not especially altruistic; she seeks revenge, and to achieve that she must recover her immediate past and fully understand herself.
The understanding-herself part is where this vibrant, fast-paced film really gets interesting. At every turn, Patience/Catwoman is confronted with strikingly different images and ideals of femininity. One the one hand, there's her best girl-pal Ophelia (Frances Conroy), the epitome of naughty-but-nice, women's-magazine banter about hot guys and sexy clothes.
On the other hand, there's Laurel. In an echo of the forgotten black comedy Death Becomes Her (1992), she is the Dorian Gray of womanhood. Bitter because, as a model, she has been placed on the scrap heap at 40, she uses the latest Hedare-produced cream to freeze her good looks. As the insane and scarcely human Laurel, Stone enjoys her best role since Martin Scorsese's Casino (1996).
Even though Patience, in her ordinary, daily life, tends to be a quiet, submissive creature, she cannot ignore the unsubtle signs of patriarchal oppression all around her. A lecture from a helpful cat-keeper who opens up the secrets of Patience's inner-feline is capped with the sad news of how, as a university lecturer, this formidable, mature woman was denied tenure: "Male academia," she sniffs.
Via the beautifully orchestrated visual and aural design of this movie, Patience is aligned with every kind of transgressive woman in history, art and fiction. Catwoman is a fabulous amalgam of Mata Hari, Irma Vep, Supergirl and many other female warriors. Is she ultimately an avenger or a do-gooder? When a modern girl finds herself at last able to reach for the big brass ring of (as Patience puts it) "power and freedom" in a male-dominated society, the answer is never going to be morally clear-cut.
Most superheroes have romantic problems, but this superheroine faces existential dilemmas of love, longing and avowal which make Superman or Spider-Man's issues seem like a picnic in comparison. She confesses to wanting to "devour" the good-looking, law-enforcing man who is on her trail, Tom (Benjamin Bratt). But would giving in to the siren-call of her desire mean a stripping-away of that hard-won power and freedom? Not since the little-known Canadian B movie Model By Day (1994) has pop culture tackled these questions with such neo-feminist vigour.
Some finicky viewers may find Catwoman weakly plotted in places. The film deftly skates over some points. There seems no clear logic to when Patience is "herself" and when she is Catwoman. Are her feline attributes (such as her hunger for sushi and her heightened sensory capacities) always "on"? If so, who is she exactly when she is having sex? If the movie vacillates on such matters, it is for a good, poetic reason: the film is about the (sometimes hysterical) confusion of female identity in the contemporary world.
Director Pitof has made one previous film in France, Vidocq (2001), and worked on the visual design of many others, including several by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Indeed, the deeper that Catwoman digs and the darker it gets, the more it reminded me of another twisted parable of female identity in high-fantasy mode, Jeunet's underrated gem Alien Resurrection (1997).
Pitof's skills ensure that Catwoman – unlike so many contemporary blockbusters – always keeps its extravagant effects tied very closely to its emotional and intellectual content. Let's hope this amazing film finds a properly appreciative audience.
© Adrian Martin September 2004