If you’ve only heard the briefest of things about Catfight, you’d be forgiven for imagining a sort of female version of The Fast Show’s ‘Long Big Punch Up’ and, to be fair, that wouldn’t be too far off the mark.
Turkish-American indie filmmaker Onur Tukel is back in the spotlight with this new outing, leaning into satire and away from his slightly more uncomfortable forays into horror-comedy.
While some of the director’s previous efforts, like Applesauce and Summer Of Blood, drew some extremely positive reviews, general audiences haven’t responded in kind so far, and he doesn’t make it easy for the mainstream to embrace him with Catfight, either. And you know what? Good. I may not have personally enjoyed a lot of Onur Tukel’s films, but I’m glad he’s out there making them. The man has been trucking since the late-90s, and his projects definitely retain a 90s-indie feel about them, with Catfight being no different.
Tukel’s latest effort pits Veronica (Sandra Oh), a rich trophy wife, against her old friend from college Ashley, played by Anne Heche. The two had a falling-out after Ashley came out as a lesbian back in the day, and dear friend Veronica decided the best way to respond was by completely ghosting her.
So right off the bat, the unapologetic Oh is instantly dislikeable. Not only did she betray her close pal all those years ago, in the present day she’s just as unpleasant. She savagely tears into her earnest teenage son for having an interest in art (a worthless vocation, by her standards), she drinks heavily (she’d likely be the mum on your Facebook feed posting “wine-o-clock lol” most days) and she treats her hired help like garbage.
When we move on to Ashley, we might presume she’d be the sympathetic character of the piece, but it turns out she’s just as crappy a person as her ex-friend. She’s still struggling along in a holding pattern of arrested development, sucking money from her ever-more-impatient girlfriend (Alicia Silverstone), promoting her (terrible) art and slating her helpful young assistant to make herself feel bigger and better.
When Ashley and Veronica run into each other randomly at a party, the old resentment between the two women quickly rises to the surface and they’re soon punching each other’s lights out in a fluorescent-lit corridor away from the revellers.
And then they have another punch-up. And another one. Tukel uses these extensive fights to bookmark the film’s acts quite neatly, and what happens before and after them drives the story forward, sometimes years into the future. The fights themselves celebrate a sort of They Live vibe, with punches not connecting properly, overly-staged moves that feel wrestling-lite, and almost cartoonish sound effects as the fists and feet rain down.
As Ashley and Veronica’s fates switch and intertwine, mirroring each other, a not-entirely-unrealistic alternative War On Terror also plays out in the background on TV sets. Cinderella Man star and one-time American Dave Lister Craig Bierko plays a generic talk show host who delivers updates about things like the draft being reinstated as oversees casualties rise, before introducing his comedic relief – the horrifyingly inappropriate Fart Machine – in what can only be a tribute to Howard Stern’s 90’s alter ego Fartman.
It’s a lot. There’s a lot going on. But the film is always inherently watchable, and after initially brushing it off as tonally-confused and unsatisfying, it started to eat away at me fairly quickly. What did it all mean?
At some points, it’s easy to imagine the two women are simply one person, a visual representation of the endless internal conflict of self-hatred and narcissism that swirls within so many of us. What makes us ‘better’ than each other? Does it matter what we have when we can lose it so quickly? Why do we only appreciate things properly when they’re taken from us? How can we ever truly redeem ourselves when there’s always another tomorrow yet to come?
At other times, it seems like Catfight is purely a comment on the perpetual horrors dished out by the human condition itself. Fighting over money, fighting over religion, fighting over love, always fighting, fighting, fighting over something, while we wilfully ignore the consequences.
Perhaps the film is about none of these things. In the end, it lets you decide for yourself what its purpose is, but with its brazenly original ideas and refusal to spoon-feed you any sort of rationale for its existence, Catfight can only come fully recommended.
Catfight is out on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download now