WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT and Bringing Characters Together

I had no idea what to expect when I checked out What’s New Pussycat (1965) from the library. I knew it was Woody Allen’s first produced script and that it was his first acting role. So I expected a Woody Allen-esque type film. It is, in a way. But it was way more slapstick than I anticipated. In a good way! What’s New Pussycat is super fun. And that second to last end scene that probably goes on for a half hour is mind blowing. But let’s build to that moment.

What a fun cast this movie has. Peter Sellers as a sex-hungry psychoanalyst with an angry wife, Peter O’Toole as a sex-hungry, non-committal boyfriend who has sex with every woman he knows, Woody Allen as a neurotic trying-to-get-sex guy and when he finally is able to get sex is interrupted over and over again, Romy Schneider as Peter O’Toole’s girlfriend who just wants him to commit, Capucine as a nymphomaniac who comes from a family of nymphomaniacs (her father and two brothers), and Paula Prentiss as a woman who’s a half-virgin because she isn’t a virgin in America but she is in Paris and she tries to kill herself all the time by swallowing pills, so much so that the suicide ward at the hospital gives her a medal. Do you see a theme here?  You should.

It’s sex. The theme is sex. Or, characters defined by their sexuality and how much they get sex. “Wow, that sure does sound like a stupid way to have characters. People are more than their sexuality, you know?” Yeah, I totally agree. BUT! It totally works here. The film is a little slow for most of it. It’s entertaining but I wouldn’t say it’s laugh out loud funny every second. BUT!!! The film builds to this crazy climatic scene with every character walking around this hotel and hiding from each other and confronting each other and their motivations don’t line up with other motivations and it’s a wild ride of people wanting things and not getting them and miscommunications and jokes! I was so impressed with this end of the film that I’d watch this over and over again just for that scene. It’s a lot like the restaurant scene in Playtime (1967), whereas there’s that forty minute scene of everything going wrong, but there are few characters in that film that we really care about and know because we’ve only really spent time with Jacques Tati, and we’re more watching that scene for what’s going to happen next to this restaurant that’s falling apart. Whereas in What’s New Pussycat, we’ve spent over an hour with all these characters. We know what they all want and what their weaknesses are and their relationships to each other. Then you put all these very conflicting sex-hungry people in a small country hotel together and see what happens.

Let’s talk structure. There’s a pretty funny part that would be the end of the movie in any stereotypical Hollywood flick. An hour and ten minutes into the film, Peter O’Toole goes to his girlfriend and confesses his love for her and says he’s ready to commit. While this monologue is being done, big words and an arrow pointing to Peter O’Toole appear and flash on screen. They say, “AUTHOR’S MESSAGE.” Which, shit, that’s pretty funny. I expected the film to just end there. But the film has a whole half hour left. Maybe it was trying to break conventions and show what happens after the “happily ever after” moment or maybe we needed this happy moment between the couple to really add to the hotel scene I talked about above. Comedy is pretty similar to drama, in that way. You need the small happy moments to make the real climatic moments bigger. You need to build character tensions together so that the audience thinks “oh no, what’s going to happen when they’re finally in a room together?” In a drama, you’ll expect someone to die, or something dramatic like that. In a comedy, especially this one, you can expect weird absurdism.

This film plays with storytelling a lot and doesn’t really seem to follow many rules unless making fun of them, like the “AUTHOR’S MESSAGE” joke. When the film is following the conventional three act structure, it seems to be making fun of it in a way. The hotel scene at the end of the film goes on for so long that it almost feels like a different film, thus giving it an episodic vibe. I guess this film is a bit episodic, now that I think about it. Of course there is an overarching story, but I remember more of the small scenes that are more character than plot.

Uh, what else can I talk about? I had to stop writing but now I’m back to it a few hours later so… Oh! The way the film is told can be analyzed, I guess. I feel like many comedies I have seen do not really use the camera and editing as a way to enhance the story. They more or less sit back and let the characters act. And that’s not a bad thing. A film doesn’t have to be flashy to tell a story. I do think many modern comedies do typical shot/reverse shot type set-ups to allow for more improvisation without continuity errors. What’s New Pussycat uses the style of filming that was how movies have been told since they started (but don’t seem to be doing much now of, somewhat unfortunately) and that is by doing master shots where both characters are in frame and they just act out the whole scene. Obviously there are cuts in there, nothing drastic like a 180 degree break or anything. I think this film uses editing cleverly, especially in the hotel scene where SO much is going on. The cinematography is safe, and that’s totally fine. I can’t imagine a different way to film this kind of film.

So it’s pretty good. Not the best comedy, but one that builds to something that is totally worth it. It’s worth a watch!