Cats is pure bewildering pleasure

Cats might seem a folly by normal habits of judgment – but its mad musical choreography and even its awkward effects are a pure hit of visual singularity.

Cats review: an unwieldy eyesore

Mark Cousins

Cats (2019)

I saw Cats on the first morning of its release. I couldn’t wait. I found the reviews hilarious, but their ire fired me. Several critics said versions of “I wish I could erase it from my brain,” as if the film was a poison, dye or violation. That made me even keener to see Cats.

The film’s trailer was much mocked, so I felt a bit stupid for liking its atonal, uncanny masala. I hunger for things I’ve not seen, and that trailer delivered in its uneasy mix of melodrama, movie stardom, tactile-shiver, sincerity and glee.

I go to the pictures to see what I haven’t seen, the unprecedented. I’ve always loved that word ‘unprecedented’. As I walked to the film in Edinburgh this morning, I passed the grave of the great philosopher David Hume, whom I often call the patron saint of looking. He argued that taking in visual information is, if anything, a minor part of perception. The major part happens once the images are inside our heads. Our brains become frantic assessors, categorisers, filers. We try to find where the new image fits.

In my book The Story of Looking, I tried to write about how looking is a kind of fitting. We think that watching something is a front to back activity – we take in light through our eyes, which is then sent back into our brains to be converted into neurochemical signals, etc. But studies show that when we look, twice as much electric brain activity is, counter-intuitively, back to front. We’re projecting when we look. It’s more about us than the outside world. When we look at the trailer for Cats, we’re projecting onto it what we know about movie genres, emotional propriety, the career of director Tom Hooper, the evolution of CGI, the star personas, the industrial hubris and greed of Hollywood, etc.

Cats (2019)

Three hours ago, the lights went down and Cats began. Immediately my brain started projecting. The film’s opening made me think of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, and the 101 Dalmations flashed into my head, and then – more strongly – I remembered watching Busby Berkeley dance numbers on TV as a boy. I didn’t know the word ‘surreal’ back then but, in the cinema this morning, minutes after I thought about Berkeley, Cats had cockroaches do a Berkeley routine.

Then I noticed the bodies in Cats. It’s definitely got an erotic imagination. The crotchy balleticism. Eyes and thighs. The second number, set in a graveyard, writhes. It felt like I was watching a circus, or looking at a Balthus painting.

The film is surely unfinished, or abandoned – in too many scenes, the background and foreground are hardly integrated – and, because of this, especially in the second half, it’s a bit of a visual klutz. At times I could hear a voice in my head saying this, and that voice had some merit.

Cats (2019)

But it was my rational, evaluative, educated voice, and I was too busy having a good time to take heed. Just like the critics, I could feel my brain searching in vain for folders in which to file Cats. But I felt that too when I saw Blue Velvet, The Holy Mountain and Kira Muratova’s The Asthenic Syndrome. They’re better films than Cats, but all four created, for me, the same visual bewilderment.

As I watched and loved Cats, I felt I was doing a CAT scan (sorry) of my pleasure. If there’d been a camera on my face, you’d have seen me smile (a lot), and laugh and, once, cry. The CAT scan would have shown the bits of my brain that caused those emotions. Some of them will have been emotions of recognition, but most of what I felt felt new. Unprecedented. A sometimes ugly, industrial film took pre-existing theatre and music, added in some cinèma verité (hand held, live recording), what looks like multiple designers at war with each other, Judi Dench’s face, Taylor Swift doing Marilyn, Ray Winston from another planet, a below the radar sexuality, and some gorgeous, lissom choreography.

I got a new lens in my left eye this week, as I had a cataract. The street where I live looks sparkly and new. Unprecedented.

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