The Case of the Grinning Cat



First Run/Icarus Films

NEW YORK -- There is a real playfulness exhibited in "The Case of the Grinning Cat" -- Chris Marker's ramshackle video essay examining French political demonstrations -- that seemingly belies the veteran director's advanced age. While this hourlong work doesn't really have the substance to measure up to efforts like the similarly titled "Grin Without a Cat," it does demonstrate that this cinematic provocateur has lost little of his gift for social observation.

The feline of the title refers to the series of brightly colored drawings of a large, smiling feline that began to show up in mysterious fashion on various buildings and walls throughout Paris. Purportedly looking to solve the mystery of the unknown artist, dubbed M. Chat, the filmmaker uses it instead as a springboard to examine the city's changing social climate -- from the pro-American feelings generated shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, to the anti-Bush and Iraq War demonstrations that lately have become so prevalent.

Looming over all the various expressions of social expression depicted in the film -- ranging from the serious (protests against China's occupation of Tibet and the government's banning of Muslim headwear) to the silly (a flash mob event involving the simultaneous opening of umbrellas on a rainless day) -- are the visages of the grinning cats, managing to look simultaneously charming and vaguely frightening.

Featuring a digressive, free-associative style, the film doesn't really manage to sustain attention through its brief running time. But it is heartening to see that the filmmaker, now in his mid-80s, is as passionately engaged as ever.