I’ve found while doing this column that no matter how bad I may find a certain film, there are always a few defenders. Super Mario Bros., Judge Dredd, and others all have the few who stand by the flawed films and find the hidden charms within – I kind of feel that way about Steel. Then there are the film that no one in their right mind can defend. I am, of course, talking about Catwoman. A notable commercial and critical flop, Catwoman did earn certain accolades – winner of 4 Razzie Awards out of 7 nominations. Halle Berry arrived in person, the first ever to do so, to collect her trophy for Worst Actress. While it is certainly easy to complain that the Razzies focus on low-hanging fruit, this one earned it.
Originally envisioned as a spinoff for Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle from Batman Returns, the film floundered in development hell for nearly a decade. Over a dozen screenwriters worked on the film in one form or another with 4 writers – Theresa Rebeck, John D. Brancato, Michael Ferris, and John Rodgers – being credited on the finished film. On top of the chaotic writing process for the film, matters were compounded by the addition of Pitof as the director. The visual effects supervisor on Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, Catwoman would be Pitof’s first feature film as a director. For the French director, the language barrier certainly wouldn’t help.
Pitof was certainly unable to figure out a consistent tone for the work. Alternating between heavy camp and a deadly seriousness, Catwoman is as chaotic tonally as it is visually, and that’s extremely chaotic. Pitof’s direction borders on complete incomprehensibility. Judging by the constantly whirling camera, cinematographer Thierry Arbogast is probably still suffering from dizzy spells to this day. The editing, credited to Sylvie Landra, would likely have been the cause of countless epileptic seizures had anybody actually seen the movie. The film’s garish neon tones and borderline campy tone is remarkable because it was made after the disaster that was Batman & Robin, the film that killed Batman onscreen until Christopher Nolan resurrected the character in 2005.
The character of Catwoman as presented in the film is unlike any incarnation I’ve ever encountered before, taking on the abilities of a cat in the way that Spider-Man takes on the abilities of spider. The character is now infused with superhuman powers of agility and senses, not just a cat burglar in fetish gear. The origins of this incarnation are strikingly similar to the Catwoman origins in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns – a shy worker stumbles upon an evil plot by her corporate bosses who try to kill her and fail, so she takes on a new identity as Catwoman. The twist here is that this Catwoman was resurrected by the help of mystical cats from Ancient Egypt, who have been providing powers to Catwomen for a millennia. What’s really unforgivable is making Catwoman a split-personality disorder, where the actions of Catwoman differ from the actions of her shy alter ego. They completely dodge any moral complexity within the character.
The dire combination of inconsistent tone and incomprehensible visuals doom the cast. As the titular hero, Halle Berry is awful, but, in all fairness, she isn’t the first X-Men awful. Berry fully invests herself in the role of Patience Phillips and still falls woefully short. When she’s serious, she’s laughable; when she’s comical, it’s tragic; when she’s sexy, she’s not. Then again, nothing in this film works. Sharron Stone attempts to get one final gasp from her looks and not her acting abilities as the villainous makeup queen, Laurel Hedare. Lambert Wilson, cashing in on his brief stint of recognition following his role in The Matrix sequels as the Merovingian, appears as the philandering husband of Laurel, George Hedare. As the romantic interest of Berry’s Catwoman is Benjamin Bratt, a police detective with all the same mannerisms from his stint on Law & Order. MadTV alum Alex Borstein attempts to provide the film with comic relief, instead badgering the audience with a grating caricature. Then there’s Frances Conroy as Ophelia, the crazy cat lady who provides Patience with all the exposition necessary, and provides the film with oodles of unintentional hilarity.
What’s most baffling about the film is its tired generic view of women. The women in this film are jealous, superficial, materialistic, or just plain nagging. When Patience finally morphs into Catwoman, she steals a motorcycle and utters the line, “Time to accessorize.” She follows this by breaking up a robbery in a jewelry store and stealing all the jewels for herself. From this point forward, the claws on her costume are made up of diamonds. The villainous Laurel Hedare is afraid of aging and is pushing a makeup cream that reverses aging, the only side effect is the horrible scarring that occurs when the cream isn’t in use. The filmmakers use a form of digital smoothing on Stone’s face, only reinforcing the standards the film aims to subvert. The film plays out like a Men Rights Activist’s idea of female empowerment. It makes Sucker Punch look like it was written by Gloria Steinem.
Then there’s just the stupid cat stuff. Catwoman walks into a bar (this isn’t a joke setup) and orders a drink, “White Russian – no ice, hold the vodka, hold the Kahlua.” She downs the glass of cream and licks the milk moustache from her face, as if they were hoping for a cross promotional Got Milk? campaign. Following a sex scene, the police detective has scratch marks on his back. When it rains, Catwoman seeks shelter because, you know, cats hate water. All of this is carried on ad infinitum to the point of tedium.
This is the kind of film that make you question the sanity of Warner Bros. executives. It’s absolutely insane to give a first time director from France a budget of $100 million – say what you will about Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Ressurection, which Pitof directed the second unit, at least he’d directed a few quality films before that. A chaotic film of clashing tones and incomprehensible visuals, Catwoman even features an homage to the playground fight in Daredevil – Patience and her cop buddy play a sensual game of one-on-one basketball in front of a group of cheering children. Pitof hasn’t helmed another feature film since, and Halle Berry’s status as a leading lady has never recovered. More than anything, it’s just another example of Warner Bros. inability to understand and properly capitalize on their comic book properties – the success of Nolan’s Bat-films seem like dumb luck. This kitten has been spayed, neutered, and de-clawed. Even Joel Schumacher looks down upon this one.