Women as animals: Kahlo and Cat People

The Little Deer by Frida Kahlo

This is a painting by Frida Kahlo from 1946 that I encountered in a book the other day. I think it’s very pretty and it raises a lot of interesting thoughts in my head. I guess the first few are thoughts like, Why is she a deer? as well as the inference that this is about herself being a victim. I love how she’s standing up straight, with a neutral expression on her face, bleeding. And how dead and ominous the forest and background look. I don’t have much insightful analysis to do here, but I wanted to incorporate this into a blog because this painting just struck me, as much as of Kahlo’s work has. Struck me in an unusual way, maybe in the part of me that feels sympathy, or the part that distinguishes between human beings and animals. The book I was reading mentioned that she paints herself as a male deer, with antlers and testicles. I don’t know too much about her biographically, but I wonder if she saw herself as some kind of gender outlaw. 9 arrows, piercing her flesh. Lost in the woods with a branch under her hooves. And that mesmerizing unibrow, always the most memorable element of Kahlo’s appearance. Who would shoot that many arrows into a deer like that, anyway? Maybe it’s a riff on St. Sebastian.

The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna

According to Wikipedia, St. Sebastian has received the cultural status over the centuries of a gay/religious icon. Taking Kahlo’s own bisexuality into account, maybe this is significant. I don’t really know. All I know is, I saw this picture in a book and it struck me. A woman’s face – and not just any woman – on a deer pierced with arrows and bleeding. It’s a very eerie, even upsetting painting. She looks like she’s in pain but not begging for pity.

Aside from looking at random paintings, I haven’t been up to much intellectually speaking or otherwise. Classes are at end and we’re in that twilight season between scholastic pursuits and running off to be united with my distant lover. But here’s something worth discussing.

The film is Cat People (1942), the first work of producer & master of horror Val Lewton. I realized today that it’s probably one of my favorite movies and one of the best horror movies ever made. Once you’ve watched it, it has a grip on you (kind of like that painting above). And it’s probably no coincidence the two works I’m discussing today involve treading the line between human and beast. It’s fertile ground; it has been since the days of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and before that. But that’s a broad topic and I won’t go into it now. Cat People attains a sort of pulp horror perfection. It’s a cheap movie – in fact, that’s part of the point – that plays with lights and shadows, bouncing through the water of a public pool at night, or along a desolate street where a woman walks alone, and turns it into pure fear.

Much of this is courtesy of Nicholas Musuraca, a cinematographer whose work went back and forth between horror (The Ghost Ship and the brilliant The Seventh Victim, other Lewton productions) and film noir (Cat People director Jacques Tourneur’s other masterpiece Out of the Past and Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night); this flexibility on Musuraca’s part, I think, demonstrates the kinship between the noirs of the early ’40s and Lewton’s style of moody urban horror. Cat People could very well be a film noir. Except its femme fatale, big surprise, turns into a cat and mauls people. A few months ago, I wrote a review of the film for this issue of the Carl, and summarized the plot like so: “boy meets girl. Girl is afraid she’ll turn into a giant cat. Boy cheats on girl with other girl. Girl turns into giant cat (or does she?).” It’s a simple premise emerging from vague dreams of dark and foggy Serbia, whence the cursed heroine Irena emigrates. (Serbia here is as good as Transylvania or Latveria or fill in your random eastern European country.) And we start out with a beautiful picture of American heterosexual normalcy until, well, Irena’s secret inbred something starts to catch up with her. We’ve got the classic scene where a feline stranger in a Serbian restaraunt addresses Irena’s as “sister” and disappears. The film is so rich with quasi-Freudian psychosexual confusion, more than enough to match the haziness of the lighting.

I’m going to bed now (it is 4 am, after all), but I highly recommend you watch Cat People. I want to see it over and over again. It’s a subtle, fascinating, seriously scary movie and I love it. The monster is the most sympathetic character, played by the cute, vulnerable French actress Simone Simon (who played another kind of femme fatale in Renoir’s La Bête Humaine [1938]), lost and alone, beholden to the chaotic emotions and powers brewing inside her. If you’re interested, Cat People is currently on YouTube here (though the fuckers won’t let me embed). Watch and be drawn into the strange and frightening nightmare which Lewton, Tourneur, and Musuraca create, as it gradually enfolds Irena and carries her off.

And pleasant nightmares to you, too.

1 Comment

Filed under art, Cinema, Media, Sexuality

One response to “Women as animals: Kahlo and Cat People

  1. Sententia

    The Freda Kahlo painting… At the age of 18 she was involved in a motor vehicle accident of sorts I believe and at one point after suffering multiple injuries her abdomen and womb were pierced all the way through by a metal handrail. To have something like that go completely through your body must have been a terrifying experience.

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