I’d spotted the publicity for Catfight in recent weeks and hadn’t, from the images and basic synopses shared, twigged that this was the latest film from Onur Tukel. I’d seen two of Tukel’s previous films – Summer of Blood and Applesauce – and had not particularly enjoyed either of them. Then again, I don’t think I’m particularly the target audience of Tukel’s brand of low-key, cynical humour, styled after Woody Allen and the like. So, upon learning that Catfight – sold as a “brutal and darkly hilarious film” – was Tukel’s latest, my curiosity was piqued. While I’ve not been a fan of Tukel’s films, they’re certainly not bad films, and so what really drew my interest was seeing if Tukel could effectively manage to write a film led by two female leads, when his previous films have been, well, pretty damn masculine.
In Catfight, struggling artist Ashley (Anne Heche) and wealthy trophy wife Veronica (Sandra Oh) find their paths cross at a party. Recognising each other from their time at college, their frosty reunion turns sour resulting in a brawl in a stair-well, leaving both battered. Their fortunes change and years later their paths cross again, resulting in just another brutal encounter.
In short, no, I don’t think Tukel can effectively write a female-led film. The hook upon which the film seems to be sold – escalating fights between two women with personal grudges – seems disingenuous as best. If anything, the fights – sort of brutal, but mostly boring – seem at odds with the tone of the rest of the film, which is very much in the mould of his previous, Allen-esque comedies. Maybe, though, the fights are meant to be funny too, because they certainly feature almost comedically unrealistic sound effects, but they’re not choreographed in such a way as to suggest humour.
I suppose the aim is satire, but if so, it’s ineffectual. There are many, many domestic dichotomies added-on to the central rivalry – namely, the conflict between financial gain and personal expression or happiness – and motherhood becomes a bit of a central driving force to the years-long vendetta. Furthermore, a nebulous war in the Middle East forms an on-going backdrop to the film’s events, and the very end of the film left me wondering if perhaps these women were simply cyphers for the USA’s two-party political system. If so, it doesn’t quite add enough oomph to the film in retrospect.
That being said, Heche and, particularly, Oh, give great performances as Ashley and Veronica, even if their dialogue is never fully believable. Therein lies the struggle in sympathising with either of these unlikeable characters – they never once feel real enough to offer any avenue for sympathy. It’s all well and good offering some reversals of fortune, but when they’re both horrible people to start off with it’s not really taking the characters anywhere. They’re just standing in for some broad, over-baked ideas of all that’s supposedly wrong with modern American society.
Even if, for me, the film is not particularly successful as a comedy or a satire, it’s at least nice to see a degree of progression in Tukel’s work. I may not be a fan (I haven’t seen his earlier or short film work), but Catfight is at least a different beast, in some respects, to Summer of Blood and Applesauce, which are both relationship comedies, first centred on a single man and his many attempts at relationships, and then on two established couples. In some ways, Catfight is also about a relationship, but it’s certainly not even close to romantic. All in all then, if you’ve enjoyed Tukel’s previous films then there’s a good chance you might enjoy Catfight, but for me it simply didn’t work on any of the levels it seemed to be aiming for.
Catfight is available now in the UK on digital platforms and comes to DVD on 24th April, from Arrow Films.