Louis Wain was a cat person.
No, let me rephrase that: In the late Victorian age, Louis Wain was the cat person.
When most thought that felines were vaguely malevolent creatures only good for catching mice, Louis and his wife, Emily, kept one as a (gasp) pet. They named him Peter, and he became a member of their little family. And if that was a bit unusual—well, so were they.
Louis came from a rather genteel family that was habitually broke. His free-spirited mother and five unmarried sisters looked to Louis for financial support. And indeed, he tried to support them as a freelance illustrator—occasionally getting trampled by the livestock he sketched.
Emily was the family governess for a spell, and 10 years older than young Louis. She hid in cupboards and carried around rocks and didn’t care a whit about Louis’ pronounced hairlip. Their marriage made for a minor scandal, what with Louis marrying “the help.”
So Peter was just more oddity in a family of oddities. And long before the Internet was awash with odd, adorable cats (and, of course, long before there was an internet), the feline brought Louis and Emily Wain a measure of much-needed joy.
For joy, in the Wain cottage at that time, was in short supply.
Emily was dying. Soon she’d be gone, and Louis and Peter would be alone. So to amuse Emily—perhaps to keep his always agitated hands busy—Louis drew Peter incessantly. In every possible pose. In every conceivable mood. Emily loved Louis’ cat drawings. And when Louis began to draw other sorts of cats, so did everyone else.
Louis Wain’s cats became a sensation after Emily’s death, printed in London’s most prestigious magazines and landing on the front of its cheapest postcards. He anthropomophized them, turning them into little people: Cats drinking tea. Cats skating on ice. Cats getting haircuts, cats playing cards. “He inveted a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world,” declared author H.G. Wells. “English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.”
By the time Wells said those words, though, Wain was locked away in a mental asylum—separated from his precious cats.
But that’s getting ahead of the story.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is many things: comedy, drama, history, curiosity. But perhaps above all, it is a romance.
Louis and Emily were two rather odd birds who found one another and loved, deeply and sincerely. When Louis tells Emily that she’s made the world “beautiful” for him, she gently rejects the notion.
“I don’t make the world beautiful, Louis,” she says. “The world is beautiful, and you’ve helped me see that, too.” And she encourages him to capture that beauty and “to share it with as many people as you can.”
So Louis tries to do that with his cat pictures, which indeed charm countless people. One of his editors marvels that Louis was able to create such fun, whimsical and indeed beautiful pictures during such a dark time in the artist’s life (during and after Emily’s terminal illness).
“In this occasionally bleak world, you have shown a resilience that I admire,” he tells Louis. “And if you must know, you have brought me quite a lot of cheer with your pictures.” And while the editor was pretty tight with his money during most of his working relationship with Louis, the editor grants Louis and his family one extravagant, and much-needed, gift.
Louis was, admittedly, not much of a businessman—never really copyrighting his work and often giving drawings away for free. That made him a less-than-ideal provider for his mother and sisters, but he did whatever his addled mind would allow.
Louis’ oldest sister, Caroline, was the family’s most—perhaps only—sensible member, doing her best to channel all these Wain free spirits into productive grooves. And while she comes across as a bit of a killjoy at times, her sense of zealous duty blooms from a place of love and responsibility.
The film’s narrator notes that cats have been worshiped as gods (most notably in ancient Egypt) and denigrated as bearers of “witchery and sin” (in Europe’s Middle Ages).
While electricity isn’t spiritual, of course, it was a mysterious and little-understood force in Louis’ time—an almost magical power with endless possibilities. Louis was rather obsessed with the concept of electricity, and the real-life Louis Wain thought both people and cats might be little electrical batteries of sorts. Some of his later paintings seem to feature electrical waves or charges emanating off his cats.
In the movie, Louis sees electricity as an animating power: “A mysterious elemental force that on occasion, he could feel shimmering in the ether,” our narrator says. When Louis sees a particularly beautiful landscape, he describes it as being electric. And when an editor shows him photographs (a new technology) of a boxing match, Louis is unimpressed. “Where’s the electricity?!” he shouts, knowing that his own pictures showcase that energy far more than any static photo can.
We see a religious funeral procession. There’s some dinnertime conversation about Protestants and Catholics.
Louis and Emily’s romance progresses rather rapidly. The narrator tells us that he never considered entering such a relationship until he saw Emily and a “strange, tingly feeling … sparkled through his loins.” They eye each other during a family dinner. He barges into her room to invite her to a play when she’s in some sort of a robe (and one of her shoulders is scandalously bare). When she protests, he apologizes profusely, saying he sometimes forgets these sort of things having grown up with so many sisters. Soon thereafter, he shaves his mustache off—revealing his cleft lip—and tells her that he is presenting himself to her “naked.” (She quips that if he did so literally, it’d require a much bigger apology.)
At the play, the two kiss in the men’s wash room. (Society women make quick note of the scandalous meeting.) Sometime later, when Louis makes his feelings absolutely unequivocable, the two again kiss, and rather passionately. The camera departs, but the film leaves open the possibility that the two engaged in conjugal relations before actually tying the knot.
None of Louis’ sisters ever married, but they talk about men constantly during dinner. The youngest, Julie, later goes insane, and she declares that her sisters hate her because “I had relations in the graveyard.”
One sister begins to menstruate for the first time while Emily is the family governess. Emily sees the blood and reassures her that it’s perfectly normal. Later, the sister shouts in exultantly, “I’m a woman!”
We’re introduced to Louis while he’s riding on a train, his nose seriously bloodied. He says he was attacked by a bull (that he’s sketching from memory even as he tells the story). Before he arrives at the editor’s office with his sketches, though, Louis participates in a boxing match, where he’s punched and knocked down repeatedly.
Louis attends another boxing match (wherein a smaller fighter pummels and eventually knocks out a larger one), and we see pictures of yet another fight.
Both Louis and his sister Julie are eventually declared insane. And while the film doesn’t dwell on the violent aspects of their insanity, both are shown struggling and being restrained by family members.
Louis’ mind is also much disturbed by images of stormy seas and sinking ships—including a terrible hallucination in which his own (very real) ship is sinking. (He pitifully pounds on the door, calling for his parents, before the portal bursts and water explodes into his cabin.) He keeps a journal filled with dark, disturbing and violent drawings.
Both Emily and Peter (the cat) die during the film. We don’t see Emily’s actual passing, but we do see the corpse of the cat. (Another man, also dead, is shown with his face resting on a table.) We see the floating wreckage of a ship sunk by a German U-Boat in World War I.
We hear two truly gratuitous f-words. We also hear one s-word and other profanities (“a–” and “h—”). God’s name is misused thrice.
Louis and others smoke at times. Louis staggers home drunk one night after “celebrating.”
During a terrifying hallucination, Louis apparently wets his pants. (We see the telltale moisture on his trousers.) Often, Louis seems to live in squalor—his house dirty and filled with cats and whatever they might leave on the floor. We’re told that an English lady “vomited immediately” upon hearing that Louis had asked lowly Emily to marry him.
When Louis stumbles into Emily’s room while she’s still the family governess, he spies a painting that she’s working on—an effort to study up herself before teaching an art lesson to the Wain girls. Before leaving, Louis tells Emily, “There’s only one rule you ever need to teach. It’s to look.”
Louis looked. And he found beauty in the humble cat. It’s arguable that without Wain’s work, we’d not have Garfield or Hello Kitty or an internet crammed with LOL-worthy felines. He looked at cats and saw something of us inside them. He looked at us and saw something of a cat.
But he also looked and believed that cats would eventually turn blue and learn how to speak.
For all of Louis Wain’s charming artwork, his life was a sad one in many ways. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain chronicles it, perhaps, much like Louis would’ve himself: with realism seasoned by sentimentality and spiced with a dollop of strange. This is a film with its own sort of electricity. But as we all know, electricity can sometimes shock.
Admittedly, the shocks here aren’t pervasive. But they are rather jarring, because this feels like a film that could’ve been far better—far more like itself—without them. Its two f-words feel completely out of place in this story—uttered, it would seem, solely to secure a PG-13 rating, lest anyone think that the film was one for kids.
It isn’t a film for kids, by the way, with or without the f-words. This is a film for adults, what with its period-piece setting and mature themes of love and death and grief and insanity and … cats. The Electric Life of Louis Wain proffers a poignant look at a strange man who made the world we live in a little cattier. But while the film might be a little catlike itself—soft and funny and a little mischievous—its flaws keep it from being purrfect.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.