Onur Tukel’s 2016 “black and blue comedy” Catfight is catharsis by proxy. It goes without saying that the world is absurd and there’s a lot to be mad about. It’s far from a new sentiment but still, it’s one most keenly felt this year in particular. Pandemics, protests, presidents – it barely scratches the surface of the things we’re getting riled up about in 2020, whether righteously or not. But where to turn to release all that building tension? You watch someone else do it in your stead, of course.
Catfight is simple in concept and execution – two entitled, upper-class women meet multiple times over the duration of the film to do little more than beat the absolute living snot out of each other. There’s more to it than that, sure – most glaringly, a pointed if a little boggling indictment of US imperialism and the war on terror, but if we’re being honest, there is nothing so thrilling as watching Anne Heche beat up Sandra Oh so badly that she ends up in a coma.
It’s hard to believe that Veronica (Oh), a haughty, wine-fuelled trophy wife to a not-so-secretly closeted businessman, used to be friends with Ashley (Heche), a struggling lesbian artist who berates her baby-voiced assistant and doting wife, alike. But college is a far cry from the cutthroat nature of New York high society and when Veronica sees Ashley working as a caterer at her husband’s party, the smugness she doesn’t even attempt to hide at seeing her old friend fall so low, is truly deserving of the finishing KO Ashley will deal her in under five minutes’ time.
But with the final blow does not come absolution, there is no sense of vindication or justice. The film and the actors alike go a long way to conveying the nuances of both women – Ashley is not an underdog dishing out just deserts and Veronica isn’t some black-hearted villainess. Ashley’s ambition and demand for recognition is her worst quality but her desire to start a family with her wife, Lisa (Alicia Silverstone), slightly softens her sharp edges. Veronica on the other hand is sniping and conceited but her ignorance over the state of her marriage and regret over not engaging with her son more bring a needed element of sympathy to the character, due to Oh’s earnest portrayal. Granted, these two women are largely unpleasant but the film makes it pertinent to understand that neither are more or less deserving of support or what hardships await them. And many hardships there are.
The next fight, years later, doesn’t take you by surprise like the first one does, but it’s just as brutal. To call it the female version of David Fincher’s Fight Club at first seems flippant but soon feels quite apt. While the men in Fight Club are bored with their lives and seek release in basement brawls, the women of Catfight do not have such a luxury – overwhelmed by what life has dished out, they have hit a limit, with no other choice but to lash out and not without consequence too (as there often are for women). The fight does not bring glory or peace of mind, just heartache and more pain than maybe it’s worth – and what is more womanly than that?
Catfight is sexy in title alone – there are no barely clad women pawing and scratching each other. It’s mesmerising but not remotely romantic. These aren’t two well-oiled gladiators stepping to the plate to defend home and honour, they are two big cats, brutish and volatile, swiping at each other’s necks. Their instincts are base and they are out for blood, which they get in abundance. The fights are a cacophony of comic book-esque jabs and hits, interspersed with Beethoven’s Symphony No 5. Both the cracking impacts of the punches and the sheer gall to get involved in a street fight while wearing white jeans will leave you wincing. It’s horrific but feels inevitable, natural, even.
There’s little room in Catfight to hash out the morals of wrong and right. Both parties do untold damage to each other, both deal with loss, helplessness and rage – “You remind me of someone” says the orderly assisting Ashley in her physiotherapy at the same hospital Veronica was ejected from two years prior. She snipes at him much in the same way Veronica did – quite frankly, both these women are as bad as each other. But the thought of comeuppance is at the back of this film’s mind, there is far more consideration of the violent act itself, the matter of rage and the ways in which we release it, being the focal point. Which in itself is a thrill to witness. It is unimportant why you’re angry, just that you are. At a time when collective rage has hit a new peak but propriety dictates that regardless of how you’re feeling, no, you really shouldn’t start a fight club to deal with pent-up frustrations (for one, it wouldn’t be social distancing compliant), Catfight gives you permission to feel the upset and simultaneously provides an acceptable outlet. There’s a lot to be mad about in this world we live in, sure, but at least this film isn’t one of them.