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D: Onur Tukel / 95m

Cast: Sandra Oh, Anne Heche, Alicia Silverstone, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Amy Hill, Giullian Yao Gioiello, Ariel Kavoussi, Stephen Gevedon, Damian Young, Tituss Burgess, Dylan Baker, Craig Bierko

Veronica Salt (Oh) is the trophy wife of Stanley (Young), a businessman whose company is about to make a lot of money thanks to a contract with the US government. She has a teenage son, Kip (Gioiello), who aspires to be an artist (even though she and Stanley want him to go into finance), but Veronica herself doesn’t work, though she does have a habit of drinking too much red wine. Ashley Miller (Heche) is a struggling artist whose work is regarded as too painful to look at, or be displayed in people’s homes. She has a partner, Lisa (Silverstone), who is supportive of her, and an assistant, Sally (Kavoussi), who she treats appallingly. When Lisa needs Ashley to help her out one night with her catering business, she finds herself at a party organised by Stanley to celebrate the birthday of one of his business partners.

Veronica and Ashley were at college together, but though they were friends, Veronica ended their friendship when she found out Ashley was a lesbian. With Ashley still feeling some animosity for this, an unfortunate encounter later on on a stairwell leads to a fight between the two women. Ashley is victorious, but the fight leaves Veronica in a coma. Two years pass. Veronica wakes to find that her world has changed completely while she’s been asleep. Stanley and Kip are no longer alive, and she’s flat broke. Ashley, meanwhile, has become successful, and her latest exhibition has resulted in her selling all her paintings. She and Lisa have also decided to have a baby together, with Ashley being the birth mother. Veronica is taken in by her ex-housekeeper, Donna (Taylor), and begins a job as a chambermaid at a hotel. One day she sees an art magazine that features an article on Ashley. Angry at all that she’s lost because of her fight with Ashley, she attends Ashley’s latest exhibition and damages several of the paintings before running off with one. Chased by Ashley, they have another fight, but this time it’s Ashley who ends up in a coma.

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Two more years pass. Ashley wakes to find that her world has changed completely while she’s been asleep. She has lost both the baby and Lisa, and she’s flat broke. Sally, meanwhile, has become successful, and her comic book about happy bunnies has led to Hollywood snapping up the movie rights. Ashley is taken in by Sally, but she finds it difficult to draw, a side effect of the coma. With her life having lost all its meaning, Ashley is given the opportunity to find Veronica – who is now living in the countryside with her Aunt Charlie (Hill) – and settle things once and for all.

If the idea of seeing Sandra Oh and Anne Heche beat the living crap out of each other is your main reason for watching Catfight, then perhaps you shouldn’t. Although the three fights in the movie occupy a reasonable amount of screen time, they’re not what the movie is about, and they’re not as integral to the story as you might believe. In fact, writer/director Tukel could have used any one of a dozen other confrontations between Veronica and Ashley, and still got his point across. The fights themselves are heavily stylised, with both women hauling off and landing huge punches to each other’s faces in a way that isn’t the least bit realistic (they even use a hammer and a wrench on each other in the second fight), but which is at least entertaining in an “oh-my-Lord-will-you-look-at-that” kind of way. Both actresses give it their all, but the accompanying sound effects add to the dampened sense of realism that Tukel is aiming for, and as mentioned before, the fights are heavily stylised, brutal exercises in women behaving like brawling men.

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The real message that Tukel is trying to get across is that happiness is intangible, here one minute, gone the next, and it’s how we deal with that loss that counts. Veronica loses everything: her family, money, her social standing, and a lot of bad habits that she encouraged in herself, such as drinking too much and not taking responsibility for it. She learns humility, and begins to work on bettering herself. She’s derailed for a moment by seeing Ashley on the cover of the art magazine, and when she goes to Ashley’s gallery, she’s doing so out of both revenge and self-pity. She wins the fight that ensues and walks away the victor because she’s exorcised the anger she felt for missing out on so much, and losing so much as well. She finds a peace within herself in the time that follows, and by living with her aunt, learns to embrace that peace in the same way that her aunt embraces nature (or Sam the tree).

For Ashley, though, it’s a different matter. While she has a strident sense of her self-worth as an artist, her lack of success has left with her with a warped sense of entitlement. Her art reflects this, with its violent images and criticisms of consumerism and the Middle Eastern war the US is engaged in. This anger sees her through the first fight, and precipitates the third, but where Veronica eventually finds a better way to live her life, Ashley is unable to. As she tells Veronica before their third showdown, “I have nothing left to do in this life but destroy you.” Ashley needs her anger; in some ways it defines who she is. For Veronica, anger is a tool, a resource that she can call on when she needs to. It’s no wonder their feud is so intense, and costs them both so much emotionally and physically.

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In telling Veronica and Ashley’s stories, Tukel is on solid ground when examining the two women’s lives and what drives them, but unfortunately is less successful with the themes and subplots that accompany them. Throughout, there’s a war on, a conflict in the Middle East that Tukel uses to further examine issues of individual loss and pain, and to challenge the broader sense of entitlement that the US has in these situations. But these moments within the movie, ultimately, don’t add anything to it, and aren’t fully addressed, leaving the viewer with the sense that the movie is anti-war but can’t quite articulate why beyond the obvious. And there are awkward interludes featuring Bierko as a TV presenter whose updates on the war are meant to be ironic, but which are too facile to count.

Oh is terrific as Veronica, perfectly capturing the emotional highs and lows of her character’s journey, while Heche has the straighter arc, and one that calls for her to be largely unsympathetic throughout. Both do a fine job, and there’s able support from Silverstone as Ashley’s partner, whose paranoia surrounding gifts at a baby shower is one of the movie’s (uncomfortable) comic highlights. Tukel deftly weaves comedy and drama together in his script, but when he wants to get surreal – as when both women wake from their comas – it’s a little less effective. (He’s on even less firmer ground with Lisa’s obsession over a fake baby that she uses as a substitute for not being the birth mother.) With crisp, adroitly framed cinematography from Zoe White, and an offbeat soundtrack that features tunes played by a marching band, Catfight is a low-budget, low-key surprise, and well worth a look.

Rating: 7/10 – mildly demanding, but effective enough within the limits of its own ambitions, Catfight mixes black comedy with drama and the occasional dose of satire to create a movie that tries hard to impress, even if it doesn’t always succeed; Oh and Heche make for great rivals, and show a tremendous commitment to their fight scenes, but it’s when they’re called upon to show each character’s vulnerabilities and strengths that the movie really strikes a chord.

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