In The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl, Daniele Gaubert showed she had the acting ability to go with her sultry looks. Released a year before Camille 2000 made her an international sensation, Cat Girl is the one movie she should be remembered for. It was also released right around the same time as Mario Bava’s quirky Danger Diabolik!, which you can see from the same face mask both anti-heroes wear. The title is a little strange: the original French title was La Louve Solitaire, which roughly translates as Lone Wolf in English or, to be accurate, The Solitary She Wolf. I’m guessing some advertising maven went with the sensationalist title for the American Dive-In circuit.
The film begins with a burglary. A masked thief steals into a country Chalet and rips off the toff owners of the place while they are throwing a party. When said burglar pulls off the mask, it is revealed to be Françoise Tilmont (Gaubert) a real estate agent by day and cat burglar by night. She uses the knowledge gained from showing off posh estates to snobs as a means to case the joints. But Ms. Tilmont’s second story work has attracted the attention of the wrong people in high places: two government officials who need a clandestine operative to break-up a drug smuggling ring. They find out about Ms. Tilmont and decide she’s perfect for the job.
The government officials who recruit her team the cat girl up with Bruno (Michel Duchaussoy), a minor functionary who has another gift they desperately need: lip reading. Bruno lost his hearing in a bomb explosion at an early age, but got it back a few years previously while skin diving. However, he learned how to lip read while he was deaf. The plan is to put Françoise and Bruno in a hotel room across from the office the drug dealers use. Bruno can lip read what is going on across the street and, when the moment arrives, Françoise can scale into the office building and grab all the evidence the government officials need to put the crooks behind bars.
But the plan goes out of control. In the few days Bruno and Françoise are together, they develop feelings for each other. This doesn’t compromise the mission, but it complicates it. Because when the entire operation spins out of control, Bruno and Françoise are willing to sacrifice everything for each other.
I had to play the sequence where Bruno and Françoise are together in the hotel room over several times to understand what was going on between the two. There’s a lot of dialogue, which made me grateful for the dubbed English version I watched. It’s subtle, but obvious. Something has changed in their working relationship. But when Françoise walks into the room wearing Bruno’s shirt, there’s no doubt. It was still 1968 and filmmakers found it pertuient to excersize a little caution as far as sexual relations on screen were concerned. The key to understanding what transpired is buried in the dialogue. Earlier in the film, after Françoise has been recruited by the government, she’s seen leaving a nightclub in the early morning with her clueless date. As they approach her car, Françoise’s date makes a comment as to how “making love in the morning can prevent wrinkles”. After Bruno and Françoise have been working on the case he enters her room quietly in the morning with a breakfast tray. It’s not hard to fill in the blanks beyond that.
I should also point out I’m basing everything off the English dubbing, which can be less than precise. For instance, when Bruno is about to see Françoise off on her mission, he gently strokes her ninja mask, kisses her on the forehead and says something. In the English dub, it gets translated as “Pussyfoot”. What? I went back and played the French dialogue through several times until I could understand what he really said. Turns out it’s “Fe garrie”, which is an idiomatic French term meaning “Take care.” Essentially, he’s asking her to be careful.
As the cat woman, Daniele Gaubert played the role as an ice queen. She’s cold and bitter throughout the movie. It’s only in the scenes with Bruno where she starts to loosen up. I’d initially thought she was too tall to realistic play a trapeze artist turned cat burglar, but she manages to pull it off. You actually believe she’s walking a tight rope over a party. In real life, Gaubert would retire from acting after marrying a professional skier in 1972 and tragically die from cancer in 1984. There are some very good screen captures from this French blog.
The influences of Cat Girl extend far and wide. The composer would later write the memorable score for Love Story. I’m sure it inspired Luc Besson, who has made his career with movies about Girls Who Kick Butt, but are tender on the inside. I see a lot of it in La Femme Nakita and The Fifth Element.
On another level, Cat Girl is every comic book nerd’s fantasy woman. Françoise drives a nondescript Minicooper with a white top when she’s in her Sister Jekyll mode, but switches to a cherry red Dodge Firebird for her nighttime activities. In one scene, where she ditches her dull date, Françoise drives the mini into an elevator and comes out driving the Firebird. Holy fuel injection, Batman! Bruno is a minor functionary in the French foreign service who gets recalled from Istanbul to utilize his talents. He’s the nowhere man who finally gets his big chance with the striking athletic Amazon. And he charms her: “How do you look so beautiful in the morning?”
But in the end the cat woman remains very much alone. An anomaly in a world that has no use for her other than the occasional suicide mission. If anything this movie made me want to read the novels the character was based upon. But they’re only available in French, dammit.