Tomcat (Kater) is a masterclass in generating stomach churning tension from the most mundane events, going so far as to indirectly ask the viewer if they would ever truly be able to trust their partners, despite never knowing what is going on inside their minds at any given moment. What starts as a portrait of a passionate, long-term romantic relationship between a couple in the Vienna orchestra transforms in to psychological horror of the highest order without any prior warning, leaving every subsequent scene covered in pitch black dread that bravely defies any convention of horror cinema you would care to name.
Andreas (Philipp Hochmair) and Stefan (Lukas Turtur) are a highly sociable couple living in the Viennese vineyards, spending all their time either with close friends from the orchestra at dinner parties, or romantic evenings spent together, along with their tomcat Moses. Their happy upper-middle class lifestyle is suddenly threatened after Stefan commits a random act of violence out of nowhere. He has no explanation for this act and his guilt is causing him visible pain- yet the consequences of one brief moment continue to have ramifications on the couple, as it seems likely that Stefan will never be able to regain the trust of his increasingly estranged other half.
No trips to therapists can get to the bottom of why this event happened and the film never goes out of its way to disclose that information either- all but begging for repeat viewings to examine this un-foreshadowed act and its fallout in greater depth. Based on one brief moment, it becomes impossible to take anything presented at face value, even if it seldom becomes horrific in quite the same manner again. Because of this, director Händl Klaus’ film can best be described as a glorious anti-horror movie, ignoring all the standard genre tropes and feeling all the more disturbing for it.
This is only Klaus’ second film and it pegs him out as one to watch, having won rapturous acclaim on the 2016 festival circuit, including the prestigious Teddy Award for best LGBT film at the Berlin Film Festival. Despite this accolade, the key to the success of Tomcat (Kater) is because it is designed to probe in to the psyche of any viewer, regardless of their sexuality. Despite the graphic sexual content which defines the opening half hour, the central moral quandary of learning to keep trusting a loved one after they’ve committed an unexplainable crime is designed to burrow deep in to the mind of every viewer. It is so easy to put yourself in the position of Andreas and look over at your partner and wonder how you’d react if they committed a similar heinous act out of nowhere.
Told in this bold arthouse style (Klaus is very clearly inspired by Michael Haneke and uses many of that Austrian director’s signature themes/stylistic choices here), the film isn’t easy to shake off, leaving unanswered, potentially unanswerable, questions that remain burrowed in to your consciousness long after viewing.
The film would likely not harness the same power were it not for the performances from the two leads. As Stefan, Lukas Turtur manages to expertly realise a character who is deliberately impossible to read. As the film progresses, his every movement lends a chilling unease; from stroking a neighbour’s cat to cooking surprise meals for friends, every action is depicted in a manner designed to make the audience assume the worst, only for it to never materialise. Lacking a classic horror movie score (although classical and jazz music intermittently appears) ensures that this is a film left wide open to interpretation- and it is this excellent performance from Turtur that helps anchor that thrilling ambiguity.
Tomcat (Kater) is utterly chilling, with the sheer refusal to explain, contextualise or add a concrete social allegory to its central horror proving to be a masterstroke. It all but demands repeat viewings, which I can only guarantee will be as rewarding as watching this quietly macabre tale for the first time.