The Cassandra Cat (1963) directed by Vojtech Jasny
– Second Run Blu Ray.
In 1963 two films appeared that focussed on a remarkable cat. Now Disney’s The Three Lives of Thomasina and Jasny’s The Cassandra Cat would appear to have little in common. Thomasina is a sentimental family picture about a ginger tomcat, living in 19th century rural Scotland, who dies, ascends to cat heaven on a glowing staircase, very like the one in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, to meet Diana a golden-eyed Egyptian cat goddess before returning to earth with two more lives. The cat of The Cassandra Cat (which at one level is a clever and subtle subversion of the children’s film genre) doesn’t receive such treatment. This Cassandra cat is both feared and respected: the pet of a very different and mortal Diana.
One day the Cassandra cat appears, with a travelling circus, led by a beautiful young woman and a magician, in the centre of an unnamed Bohemian town. It wears glasses (slightly resembling cardboard 3D film glasses) and has the power to reveal the true nature of people. If you remove the cat’s glasses, and it catches your eye, your body changes colour. Red = love and affection, Purple = Lies and hypocrisy, Grey = Mistrust and criminal intent, Yellow = cheating and cowardly behaviour etc, etc through all the colours. A schoolteacher named Robert (Vlastimil Brodsky) turns red – the same colour as the circus woman Diana (Emilia Vasaryova).
Robert prefers a more nuanced and spontaneous approach to education and the children love this but the school director (Jeri Slovak) takes a controlling and reductionist view of things. He starts off as purple then continually changes colour, like a chameleon that can’t be trusted. Robert invites Olivia (Jan Weirich, who also plays the role of the alter-ego magician) to pose for a portrait at the children’s art class. He begins to tell the ‘fairy tale’ of the circus cat. When this once upon a time narrative turns into a real happening, in the present, it causes the children to take sides, with the cat and Robert’s kindly personality, against the authorities and their parents.
Disney creates an anthropomorphic view of animals, wrapped around an obvious, but still affecting, sentiment. Jasny’s film has its whimsy but never places you inside the head of its feline provocateur. It also doesn’t examine the motivations of its joint owners the teasing Diana (Emilia Vasaryova) and the manipulative circus magician (Jan Werich). They and the pussy remain suitably enigmatic. Disney and Jasny films work on the level of fable and fairytale. Yet the crucial Cold War and East / West difference is that the Czech Cassandra charm accompanies a pointed and effective political satire, whereas Walt would never have countenanced biting the capitalist hand that fed his cosy Disneyfication.
A healthy disrespect for authority runs throughout this immensely charming film and is beautifully realised first by the children protesting against their parents. I love the scene where Robert asks the children to paint what they like or don’t like about their town and its people. The lids of their desks suddenly become TV monitors where they watch films of the town’s eccentrics and their parents at home. Voice-overs of the children being critical of mum and dad aren’t simply a chance to childishly moan but seriously berate them for emotional neglect, bad behaviour and hypocrisy.
Visually and technically The Cassandra Cat’s stand out moment is the magic show sequence. It’s remarkably co-ordinated. Special effects achieved through theatrical wizardry – nothing was done in post-production: a wonderful use of colour and scope employing a black background where objects like bicycles, ladders and ropes fly round numerous disembodied people, in an absurd Dadaist manner. What begins as a charming, if naïve, entertainment gradually hardens to expose members of the audience as ridiculous, selfish and pompous. Not only are they laughed at but each is given their personal colour. They begin to dance around looking psychedelic. Finally the crowd protests and runs riotously out of the show. These are glorious and spectacular moments of 60’s Czech cinema and European fantasy film.
There have been many quirky films about cats but I can’t recall a film quite like The Cassandra Cat. De Sica’s inner city fable, minus a cat, Miracle in Milan (1951) has been cited as an influence: possibly, but for me Cassandra is the more effective film. The Cassandra Cat is stylised, poetic, surreal, yet also naturalistic and full of political metaphors. Perhaps the storyline begins to slightly drift in the film’s last third. And the courting romance scenes between Robert and Diana can tend to meander. However the film’s climax reigns in any over-dreaminess and leaves you rightly doubting whether the town’s children and adults are fully reconciled.
Certainly, the Russians didn’t approve of its generation critique – this comic fantasy was promptly banned after the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. The Cassandra Cat is a very different film to Vojtech Jasny’s later masterpiece All My Good Countrymen (1969) but nonetheless an endearing gem.