Cat Person hits a little too close to home. And that’s exactly what director Susanna Fogel wanted.
When she signed on to direct the film adaptation of Kristen Roupenian’s viral 2017 New Yorker short story, she knew that it would reignite the divisive conversations around consent gray areas that were raging when it first came out. So she leaned in.
Cat Person follows Margot (Emilia Jones, CODA), a 20-year-old college student who starts a text-heavy flirtationship with 34-year-old Robert (Nicholas Braun, Succession) that culminates in a sex scene that has become a flashpoint for the divide around consent politics.
In the scene, Margot has an out-of-body, dissociative experience during sex with Robert. She’s torn between wanting to stop and wanting to avoid the unknown consequences of bruising his fragile ego. Robert, meanwhile, seems completely oblivious to Margot’s unvocalized discomfort.
Susanna Fogel on the Divisive Nature of Cat Person
But Fogel says it’s not a story about rape or even about a violation of consent. It’s about the unspoken in-betweens.
“When you ask people about that particular scene, there are so many men who are like, ‘Why didn’t she just leave?’ And every woman is like, ‘She couldn’t.’ Like, every woman sees it, and it’s so clear why she didn’t leave. And so many men don’t understand on a cellular level why she can’t,” director Susanna Fogel tells MovieMaker.
She compares it to the 2015 photo of a dress that had the internet at a standstill over whether it was white/gold or black/blue.
“It’s interesting,” she says. “You listen to people who have a completely different perception of a thing that you’re watching. It holds up a mirror to how we deal with each other, and why the story was so explosive for people, because they were so adamant that their perspective was right. But it’s the same encounter. And just how far apart we are is, I think, what gets under people’s skin.”
No matter which side of the divide you’re on, there’s no debating that the story elicits a powerful emotional response.
“Our lives careen wildly from banal conversations with friends to complete primal fear for your life to hilarity to drama to panic. I mean, those are all feelings that I think women relate to on any given day — they can all be part of your day,” Fogel says. “I liked that the movie did all of that and kind of like, pushed each one to the extreme.”
Fogel says she and screenwriter Michelle Ashford, who adapted the script from Roupenian’s short story, wanted that infamous sex scene to capture that strange feeling of dissociation.
“The idea that you can kind of split off from yourself — [Ashford] actually just decided to make that literal in this movie,” she says.
“In certain situations, we have a fight-or-flight response or just a desire to be less engaged and less present in our body so we can get to the other side of something — which is, I think, something that most sexually active people have had at least one encounter with. They just want it to end, but don’t necessarily categorize it as a violation of consent or anything. It just is something that they wish they weren’t doing, and they want to not do anymore. We talked about what happens in your brain and how you can self-protect and make things less visceral if you just kind of float up to the sky.”
She adds: “We just believed that people watching it would have had a similar experience in their lives, almost no matter who they are and what their background is. When you kind of are watching yourself, and you go meta with yourself and think, ‘How did I become this girl in this situation?’”
“To be able to talk to a version of yourself that’s basically like your smartest, no-nonsense best friend — it’s like the idea of having a best friend scene in your own head. We wanted it to be kind of a chatty, funny, not too serious, but all-seeing version of yourself that exists within you waiting to call you on your bullshit if you allow it to.”
Cat Person arrives is now in select theaters.
Main Image: Emilia Jones and Nicholas Braun in Cat Person.