It’s an uncommon crime thriller that makes room for whimsy, but A Cat in Paris, France’s recent Oscar-nominated animated feature, suffuses its story of gangsters and thieves with a playfulness as nimble as the feline after which it’s named.
The story really centers around the cat’s owner, a young girl named Zoe, and Zoe’s mother Jeanne, a police inspector in pursuit of two criminals: Victor Costa, the gangster who murdered her husband, and Nico, a burglar prowling the rooftops of Paris with graceful parkour. Jeanne struggles to balance her investigations with the needs of her daughter Zoe, who hasn’t spoken since her father’s death. The synopsis sounds grisly, but the film doesn’t dwell on the drama.
Dino, the titular cat, helpfully ties together the story’s disparate threads: by day, he brings Zoe dead lizards and lounges around the family’s apartment; by night he accompanies Nico in his thievery, a literal cat burglar. When Zoe follows Dino on a midnight stroll, worlds inevitably collide.
Nico, of course, is a thief with a heart of gold; he steals without qualm but helpfully arranges the plants on his victims’ windowsill, and immediately takes a liking to Zoe.
Zoe and Jeanne may be the main characters, but the film’s strengths all converge in Nico: even the film’s look, a rough expressionist animation that’s popular on the shorts circuit but rarely appears in feature films—a storybook Picasso—seems designed for his exploits. It’s fluid and expressive, and it allows Nico to twist into impressive knots as he sneaks in and out of windowsills, all snaking limbs and liquid anatomy. The style also suits his rooftop view of Paris: a riot of colorful, cramped apartments and countless rows of jagged chimneys.
The film isn’t really interested in Nico’s history or motivation; like his feline companion, he’s inscrutable and bypasses judgement. (His name is phonetically the same as the Japanese word for cat.) That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except that the ending puts him in a position where his crimes ought to be reckoned with, then ignores them entirely.
The ending is too easy in other ways as well: the film deals with Jeanne and Zoe’s trauma early on in a couple of heavy-handed conversations but is essentially breezy from then on, and the weight of the resolution doesn’t match the weight of the problem.
Still, the middle section, a game of cat and cat that bounces efficiently back and forth between Costa, Nico and the police, deftly balances high stakes and humor, owing partly to the dynamics of its gangsters: Costa is a psychopath and a genuine threat, but naturally surrounds himself with comically hapless minions. (Hiring good help has never been a strength of movie villains.)
Costa and Nico, meanwhile, make for well-matched combatants: one heavyset and tough, the other agile and cunning, with a sparkling verbal wit. Their climactic chase across the exterior of Notre Dame makes excellent use of the cathedral’s dizzying ledges and gargoyles, and when the two thieves are separated by some gaping chasm, they fight with insults instead of fists.
A Cat in Paris is by no means an instant classic, but it’s a rare family-friendly film that possesses a clear artistic voice and doesn’t pander. The international market may be our main source of hand-drawn animation for the foreseeable future, and it’s always a pleasure to see the medium being treated this well.
Directors: Jean-Loup Felicioli, Alain Gagnol
Writers: Alain Gagnol (screenplay & dialogue), Jacques-Rémy Girerd (dialogue)
Starring: Dominique Blanc, Bruno Salomone and Jean Benguigui
Release Date: Various