Catfight

Studio: MPI Media Group / Dark Sky Films
Directed by Onur Tukel

Mar 02, 2017 Web Exclusive
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There is baggage in the term “catfight”, one that describes a brawl, often physical, between two women. Baggage in the sense that  a catfight is often used by a viewer, rather than a participant, so much of what makes a catfight what it is is the element of spectatorship, of watching two ladies pull all the punches, rip each other apart, and, connotatively, for seemingly petty reasons. And, if Susan J. Douglas is to be believed, such an altercation is, in its truest form, between a blonde and a brunette, the characteristics and socialized identities of the two hair hues being so different it should be enough to engender an outrageous quarrel. Watching this dichotomy of femininity clash is, supposedly, part of the fun of watching. For New York artist Onur Tukel to call his most recent film by that term seems like a provocation: Catfight stars Sandra Oh as a rich trophy wife and Anne Heche as a struggling artist, both of whom once went to college together and have little between them now except for bad blood. And for Tukel, there will be blood.

But the purpose of the blood remains kind of confusing, given that there’s enough room in the film’s universe – the uncompromising privilege of the New York art and political scene, sort of – for there to be a study of how catfights are, under a certain gaze and through a specific lens, about measures of feminine ideals and the ability to achieve them. But these characters exist mostly in their own worlds with little to compare to except for each other, and both of their livelihoods and personal lives are dragged around enough for their entitlement to take a wallop.

Tukel strives desperately for something more than the high camp bitchery that pervades something that doesn’t try hard to hide its mediocrity like Ryan Murphy’s television resume; he dresses it up in quasi-discourse about the meaningfulness and meaningless of art and artists, the insularity of the rich,  and self-indulgence of the New Yorker. In three-ish acts, Veronica (Oh) and Ashley (Heche) both benefit and are abused by the world they so desire to be a part of, and yet the critiques of their respective environments lack the dimensionality that Tukel aims for. They’re easy criticisms which end up being sidelined in favor of the brutal brawls.

Perhaps one of Catfight’s most severe issues is that it’s just not directed very well: Tukel has no sense of space or timing when it comes to editing these several knockout fights, and while, yes, they read as cruel and excessive (probably intentionally so), the cutting is so skittish that it’s often hard to place them in relation to one another. Conversely, the rest of the film exists in relatively paint by numbers mise en scene, and Tukel, though equipped with an ear for sardonic humor, has trouble knowing what it means to humanize a character and why, to what end humanizing that person will be.

All the while, Catfight is framed around the evolution of a political regime run by a megalomaniac, whose influence on these women’s lives is great, and terrible, on the nose and totally vague. Tukel at once prances around the didacticism of more accomplished political artists (Godard, Stone, Bigelowe, etc), and addresses it explicitly.

Oh and Heche occasionally throw out pithy responses to such things as the reinstatement of the draft or the neo-War on Terror, and a late night talk show host banally offers platitudes to an indifferent audience, and both characters are written to be exploiters or benefiters, as well as victims, of such an administration. However, the relationship between politics and these women’s lives is supposed to be, cruelly, symbiotic, a messy entanglement where someone is going to lose and humans are only part of the narrative for an interest story on the news. It’s hard to meet Tukel where he wants to take us when there’s a single-mindedness about what he thinks of these women (whomever these women were “bitches” to get their revenge, I guess?), and its service to political allegory falls short because he’s so disinclined to allow these characters a sense of agency or autonomy. The film’s self-awareness does not get past its own myopia. Much of Catfight feels like the accusations of misogyny that have dogged the Danish provocateur Lars von Trier’s career – particularly something politically potent, like Dogville – and made it a dark comedy, but by someone who uses female characters for vehicles for an undergrad level thesis on war and consumerism. Catfight, though with solid performances from Heche and especially Oh (who almost transcends shoddy writing), has reductive attitude that feels misogynistic: politics is little else but two women in the back yard kicking the shit out of each other. And all for us to watch. 

Author rating: 4.5/10

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