since the 1930s, when French filmmakers like Jean Renoir and Jean Vigo ventured outside the sound stage to make movies like "Boudu Saved from Drowning" and "L'Atalante," the glory of French movies has been their overwhelming physical freedom. Shooting outdoors in real locations, the en plein air directors of the '30s and their spiritual children, the New Wave filmmakers of the '50s and '60s, suffused the mundane moments of everyday life with a sensuous lyricism. It wasn't just that these directors transmitted the feel of sun on skin or the quality of light breaking through overhanging leaves. Watching something as simple as a character moving from one part of his or her day to the next -- running errands, meeting friends for a drink -- you became aware of how the rhythm of life differed from street to street, from day to night, from market to cafe. There was a sense that the city was opening up before the characters, theirs for the taking.
The best moments of Chdric Klapisch's comedy "When the Cat's Away" have just that freedom, giving you the feeling of suddenly awakening to surroundings you've always taken for granted. The heroine, Chloh (Garance Clavel), a makeup artist for fashion shoots, seems to spend most of her life holed up inside the apartment she shares with her black cat Gris-Gris (in fact, Clavel's real cat) and her self-involved gay roommate Michel (Olivier Py). Listless and loveless, Chloh is the definition of the person who needs to get out more. "When the Cat's Away" is about how she finally does, combing the streets of her Paris neighborhood when Gris-Gris runs away, and encountering the neighbors she's never registered before.
With no one to watch Gris-Gris during her upcoming vacation, Chloh hears of an old woman who takes in cats for short stays. Madame Reneh (Reneh Le Calm, playing herself), a gruff-voiced, mustached old bird whose tiny apartment is overrun with cats (her own and boarders), is one of those people who become such a fixture in a neighborhood that they might as well be one of the buildings. Chloh leaves Gris-Gris in her care, only to come back from vacation to find that he has run away. Madame Reneh mobilizes her friends, a posse of gossipy, cat-loving older women, to find Gris-Gris. Through them, and from her own searching, Chloh makes contact with life outside her apartment.
Like another recent French film, Claire Denis' "I Can't Sleep," "When the Cat's Away" recalls the urban village feel of '30s French movies, the sensation that we've stumbled upon one of those small Parisian enclosures that operates oblivious to the larger city, a place where you always see the same faces in the neighborhood bar. That sense of the past in the present is fitting, because in the neighborhood where Chloh lives, the city's Bastille section, tradition and "renewal" are fighting it out -- it houses working-class bars and apartment buildings as well as designer Jean-Paul Gaultier's showroom. We see buildings being torn down, various neighbors of Chloh's receiving eviction notices and the encroachment of trendy shops and bars.
We also witness things like Chloh's subtle slighting of Madame Reneh when the old woman comes upon her at a cafe with a friend. Klapisch uses real locations and real people with an affectionate respect. The nonactors in the cast all appear relaxed in front of the camera. Reneh Le Calm is so completely herself at every moment that even in a scene that ought to be a groaner -- shaking her head at the fashions on display in a shop window -- she comes off as a woman entirely engaged with life. Just when she thinks she's seen everything -- they come up with this!
Perhaps out of a determination to let the people and places in his film speak for themselves, Klapisch employs an improvisatorial approach. But trusting to luck isn't the same thing as having it, and so far at least, Klapisch doesn't have the skill or discipline to work this way. "When the Cat's Away" is consistently pleasant but almost never enchanting, casual but also aimless, slack. Some scenes make no sense. When Chloh gets word of a dead cat in an abandoned lot, she goes to investigate and is so relieved it isn't Gris-Gris that she simply leaves. No cat owner (or dog owner) I know could come upon a dead pet like this without trying to give the poor thing a decent burial.
That scene points up Klapisch's biggest mistake, his conception of Chloh. Cravel is a sad-faced beauty, and when she breaks into a grin she can be beguiling. For too much of the movie, though, she remains long-faced and lackadaisical. Chloh is much more capable than some of the emotional wrecks Eric Rohmer has put on screen, but I had a much tougher time caring about her. She doesn't show the dawning delight you'd expect in a film ostensibly about a young woman finally connecting with the life around her. Chloh can be very likable, as when she enters into the joshing spirit of a neighborhood bar, but for the most part she's closed-off, willing to put up with endless crap from people who are far less sensitive to her feelings (like the unbearable Michel) than the strangers mobilizing to help her. By the time Chloh rejects the advances of a female bartender -- immensely more appealing than any man she encounters in the course of the film -- I realized I was watching a movie about discovery with a heroine who has next to no curiosity. (And Klapisch's directing is so shapeless that he almost blows the joke when Chloh goes home after that encounter and comes on to Michel.)
Klapisch's final sequence shows what the movie could have been. Gris-Gris is discovered safe and sound; the neighborhood inhabitants, who've come to recognize Chloh as one of their own, gather in the local bar; and Chloh seems to have found a man worth getting to know. In the final shot, Chloh runs down the street to the strains of Portishead's marvelously sinuous "Glory Box," a song that seems to lift itself out of its own listlessness as it goes along. Chloh is running for no other reason than that she can, to feel the pleasure of freedom and movement. You realize that the whole movie has been building toward this moment, a moment as physically exhilarating as anything I've seen in any recent film. It gives you faith that Klapisch may be on his way to finding his own running legs, too.
PHOTO BY JEROME PLON | COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICS | ALL RIGHTS RESERVED