Mousy graphic designer Patience Phillips (Halle Berry) feels strange the morning after she’s died. She wakes with her little hands turned up, pawlike, as the camera pulls back to show her curled up on a shelf. As Patience stretches, slinky and serene, she’s startled by the phone ringing, and falls to the floor, where she lands lightly, on all fours. Slipping across the room in lithe poses, she cocks her head, as if showing off her newly self-assured self, for no one.
This brief performance is one of the few semi-subtle, fun moments in Catwoman. Surprising herself with her newfound grace and intuition, Patience zeroes in on the cat — a Chinese Mau — who’s been following her for the past day and night. And luckily, he’s wearing a collar, with a name and address printed on a fortune-cookie-like slip of paper. So much for subtlety and fun. Before this moment and after, the first U.S. feature by the French director Pitof is all about explaining and overstating, making what’s potentially delightful mundane and what’s obvious just plain annoying.
By the time she’s resurrected, Patience has already informed you in a voiceover at the film’s start that she starts to live once she’s died. But first, she has to figure out what’s happened, even though you’ve just seen it. That is, she pursues her killers, whom you know to be her employer, the audaciously beautiful but also aging supermodel Laurel Hedare (stunningly taut-faced Sharon Stone), and her goons, Armando (Michael Massee) and Wesley (Byron Mann). This plot business introduces the film’s early and repeated misstep, that it has her (among other characters) retracing all sorts of steps that you’ve already witnessed a first time, such that your own, er, patience might begin to wear thin.
Repetition per se is a typical problem for movies based on comic books, in that they are called on to illustrate already-known histories, delivering just enough and specific details to please casual and rabid fans alike. This movie’s most immediate problem is that Catwoman has appeared numerous times previously, from her introduction as “The Cat,” in 1940, in DC Comics’ Batman #1 to her tv incarnations (Eartha Kitt, Julie Newmar, Lee Meriwether), her own comic books, and fierce film version (Michelle Pfeiffer); the second issue is the film’s tremendous hype, as a concept even more than a done deal (Halle Berry in leather).
Silly but not-nearly-campy-enough, Catwoman makes an initial effort to situate itself in relation to its own pop cultural history, by running through a series of opening-credits images. Here, Pitof’s little bit of summer piffle lays out cats’ significance to human arts, politics, and mythologies, visible as cat mummies, cat burglars, cat fashions, and cat carnival and circus acts (for example, 1932’s “Flying Panther”), from Egypt to China to Russia to New York City, you’d be forgiven for wondering how all this will be relevant to this particular film’s enthusiastic focus (that’s right, Halle Berry in leather). The cat’s metaphorical usefulness mostly boils down to what it’s always been: felines are supposed to be independent, erotic, and sensual.
Patience’s own first encounter with a cat (that one with the collar) has her clambering out onto a ledge outside her apartment window, and then clambering onto an air conditioner. It’s one means to her meet-cute with leading man Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt), a terminally dim detective who happens to be driving by as she’s teetering on the air conditioner, and leaps out — manfully — to prevent what he perceives as a gonnabe suicide.
His subsequent efforts to court Patience don’t make much sense, as she’s not very interesting and he’s even less so. She puts him off, lies to him, and wolfs down her sushi; he suspects her of burglary. Then again, once Patience cats up, she’s got a splishy new haircut (which she delivers to herself via some extraordinary, two-fisted Edward Scissorhands-style moves), a great new sense of style (begone, drab smocks and baggy jeans!), and mad basketball skills.
Who knew? Apparently, magic animated feline breath (delivered by that Mau into Patience’s corpse lips) bestows hoops expertise, and she impresses Tom (and the movie’s other black characters, a schoolyard full of city kids Tom has come to lecture) with her ability to slam-dunk and speed-dribble. The cat breath also inspires her to bouts of Spidey-like wall-climbing, leaping across rooftops and skittering across ceilings. She also cracks a mean whip and like, totally knows her Capoeira (Brazilian martial arts, identified in the press notes). In other words, her newfound powers have precious little to do with her feline inclinations, and, perhaps worse, they are rendered in tacky CGI.
Supposedly, these behaviors express Patience’s rebirth as a self-sufficient, self-assured creature. This new self is manifested when she tells off her supercilious boss, Laurel’s cosmetics mogul husband, George (Lambert Wilson) and briefly looks after her best friend Sally (Alex Borstein), suffering the effects of Hedare’s poisonous anti-aging product, Beau-line (pronounced variously throughout the film, but generally, thus: “Bay-yu-leeeen”). She’s in a little bit of an ethical pickle, in that she wants revenge on her killers, but at the same time, doesn’t want to kill anyone.
Patience doesn’t quite understand her powers, but rather than struggle with their possible uses, or ponder the possibility of a “secret identity,” or decide whether she’s going to identify her own self as “good” or “evil,” Catwoman goes to see the person listed on the cat’s collar, one Ophelia Powers (Frances Conroy). There, she discovers that she’s got a hankering for catnip and inclination to revenge. Advised that she’s lived her life in a cage and has now been empowered by “Bast, the sacred protector and avenger of women,” Patience then listens carefully as Ophelia utters the phrase that will repeat in her head whenever she needs a reminder of her newly self-interested outlook: “Freedom is power.”
And this would appear to be the single innovation of Pitof and Berry’s Catwoman: she’s a woman (the gendering is crucial) who wants what she wants and grabs up what she can, and doesn’t have to explain herself to anyone, not her best friend, not her man, and certainly not her audience. Her heels and her leather getup speak for themselves. And who wouldn’t want to look like that?
And so the film circles back round, awkwardly, to its ostensible premise. The women on either side of the imaginary moral divide are both gorgeous and potent, both capable of cruel violence, and both dedicated to their own desires. And both understand themselves as victims of masculine oppression. The stakes of their conflict have to do with a derivative, Joker-style gimmick in the toxic makeup (as the deadmeat doctor who cooks up the cream puts it, “I can’t live with turning people into monsters”). Even the final showdown between Laurel and Catwoman is staged so they throw each other through giant images of beautiful models. Got it: the beauty industry is bad. But if it can help you look like Berry or Stone, or even better, pay you like it pays them, well, its faults might be intermittently overlooked.