The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
The concluding day of the 70th Cannes Film Festival has finally arrived, and the town is abuzz over the impending grand finale—the awarding of the Palme de Whiskers, the coveted prize for Best Feline Performance. Cats the world over will be mesmerized by their TVs, while the most fabled celebrities of the feline world pad down the catnip-scented red carpet to enter the Palais des Kittycats on the yacht-lined shores of the Mediterranean in the center of the Cannes port.
Critics admit that this year’s Palme de Whiskers poster has it all over the mainstream festival’s poster featuring Claudia Cardinale wheeling the zero in the 70 like a hoop. For our event, the FFFA (Feline Film Festivals Authority) has commissioned an evocative graphic that has the white kitten from the fountain scene in “La Dolce Vita” lying seductively over the top of the seven, while those two charming kittens from Jean-Luc Godard’s “Film Socialisme” are seen jumping through the zero, a triumph of superior feline PR!
In this year of heightened security, the FFFA once more solicited the cooperation of sympathetic creatures from other species to lend their support. Human police may block access to streets with trucks and such, but Okja, the elephant-sized CGI pig from Bong Joon Ho’s film, has helpfully plopped herself down in the middle of the Croisette to guard access points to the Palais des Kittycats. Standing at attention is the friendly Bulgarian dog from “Directions,” who looked so fetching eating pizza in his big scene.
After one last walkthrough of the Palais, my own Miss Kitty, the mistress of ceremonies, steps out to greet the elite honor guard of French army cats that will line the approach as the guests arrive. “Nous servons et protegeons” (“We serve and protect,”) purrs the rakish captain, a little camouflage beret perched smartly between his ears. He explains to Miss Kitty that in the interests of security, all guests must flex a front paw at the door to assure that they have had their claws freshly clipped.
Celebrity cats are slinking in through the fabulous swinging double cat-doors of the Palais des Kittycats, eager to lap the beef-broth cocktails, but the jury is still deep in debate in a backstage room. Let’s listen in.
Jury president Rocky, last year’s Palme winner for his sensitive role in Chloe Sevigny’s short “Kitty,” casts Prince a baleful yellow eye, and says: “I think we can forget about the street cats and the walk-on roles this year.” Prince, who gets his air of authority from living with Magali Simard, a manager for the Toronto International Film Festival, swishes his fluffy Maine Coon-like tail in irritation. Once an abandoned kitten, he retorts, “What about those three cats in the refugee shelter in “Jupiter’s Moon? Who will recognize the homeless and the refugees if we don’t?”
“Let’s get on with it,” remarks a bored Leyla, admiring her reflection in a water bowl. She’s still in a snit because her personal assistant Amy Taubin of Art Forum misplaced her Chopard collar. “It’s a great year for cats on the big screen,” enthuses Orson, who was so excited to be chosen for the jury that he wore his tuxedo and dapper little bowtie throughout the festival, despite the objections of his butler, Eric Kohn of Indiewire.
“You’re such a novice: who ever heard of a tan tuxedo,” remarks snide Siamese princess Nico. And by the way, where’s your tuxedo, she spits at Chubbs, settling his ever-expanding striped bulk on a cushion. “It doesn’t fit,” he says bashfully,” but to be fair, Nico and Chubbs had to sneak away from Vogue critic John Powers and novelist Sandi Tan in the dead of night to get their flight from Los Angeles, so there was no time to pack.
“Let’s talk about this festival’s masterpiece of cat-casting 'L’Amant Double,'” says wild-looking Henry, who reviews for the New York Times under the pseudonym Manohla Dargis. “You have to admit that the two opposing cats, benign grey Milo, and his devilish double, the tortoise-shell longhair Danton, were the real stars, and the humans were just pathetic extras.” “I thought all the post-coital snuggling with the naked humans was cool,” leers macho Rocky.
“Oh come off it,” sneers pointy-faced tabby Lola, who curates film for Art Basel under the name Marian Masone to protect her privacy. They just shamefully exploited those feline stars to cover their private parts in nude scenes.” “Well, we’re just fine in our birthday suits,” chortles Chubbs. “As if, in your case,” says Nico.
“I hated that film,” says Orson, whose favorite film remains “F for Fake.” “I refuse to give an award to a movie that also featured a feline taxidermy specimen!” “And, that mother cat’s ultrasound gave me the creeps,” adds Rocky. “What if it was your family?” agrees a miffed Prince, who never knew his siblings.
Nico champions the calico kitten Baby, who played a brief but explosive role in “The Square,” set in a museum milieu. “We have to mentor the next generation of stars,” she points out. “That was real art, and I should know,” comments Lola, with a look that challenges anyone to defy her. “No it wasn’t,” says Prince boldly. “That kitten was in the film for like two seconds, and you’re just swayed by cuteness.”
A silence falls over the group as they take a water break, and Lola thoughtfully laps hers from a curled paw. “No one has mentioned that amazing performance in Kiarostami’s “24 Frames,” say Henry, with a flick of his clipped ear. Having been a feral cat in his youth, he found the scene in which a stalking tabby surprises a group of blackbirds in the snow and deftly carries one away in his mouth one of the most dynamic feline action scenes of the year.
“It was pretty good, it made my mouth water,” says Rocky. “Time’s running out, and we need to discuss the greatest of all, says Leyla. “Agnes Varda’s cat Mimi invented the French New Wave, and gives a spectacularly moving performance sitting on Varda’s shoulder in “Faces Places.” “You nailed it!” responds Nico, inadvertently quoting a line from the catless film “Rodin.” Leyla admits that she dislikes Mimi, who once sat on her disloyal assistant Amy’s lap in Paris. “But the power of the performance speaks for itself,” she admits grudgingly, proposing Mimi for the Palme de Whiskers.
The audience has grown restless, and some have overturned their engraved-glass bowls of beef broth by the time the jury files onto the stage to take their places on tasseled cushions. The award, a spray of 18K gold whiskers on a crystal base, glitters on a pedestal, awaiting this year’s lucky winner. “Jury president Rocky, have you reached a decision?” mews Miss Kitty. “The 2017 Palme de Whiskers goes to Mimi of Agnes Varda’s 'Faces Places'" he declares, as the crowd goes wild with excitement. Tails are proudly held aloft with happiness, and loud purrs reverberate through the Palais.
Mimi ascends the stage and touches noses with Rocky, accepting the award with gratitude. “I’m proud to be recognized by my peers for my role as the mother of the French New Wave after all these years,” she murmurs. “I couldn’t have done it without such an apt pupil as Agnes, and she deserves much credit, even though she’s only a human.”
Now it’s time for the Kittycat Peace Prize, and Mrow, the Tehran street cat who received the award last year on behalf of the feline ensemble from “The Salesman” is on hand to announce the winner. The Cannes experience has a way of transforming careers, and the once-scruffy black-and-white Mrow has clearly left his garbage-picking days behind. The Palais falls silent again as Mrow announces that the Kittycat Peace Prize goes to Baby, the kitten from “The Square,” in the hope that her example will make the world recognize the sacrifices cats make for the benefit of humans.
Baby isn’t weaned yet, and couldn’t be present without her mother, and the audience is frankly relieved. It’s an adult evening in the Palais des Kittycats, with an exciting CGI mouse chase to come later. As the mackerel fillets are served, a few courtships seem to be in the offing too, and Miss Kitty sneaks out to check on that handsome captain of the French Army Feline Corps. The purrs will be heard until dawn.