In the strange and provocative stream-of-consciousness documentary, The Case of the Grinning Cat, 85-year old director Chris Marker (La Jetee) shows us several events in recent French history linked together by a recurring oddity -- a cartoon cat with a toothy Cheshire smile that appears at each defining moment, stealthily reproduced onto the buildings, sidewalks, trees and subway walls of Paris. The graffiti bandit or bandits responsible for painting the cat all over the city are never positively identified, which delights Marker to no end, allowing to him to load the cats up with as much symbolic freight as they can possibly carry on their yellow backs. As the film drifts aimlessly through the Iraq war fallout, a contentious election and immigration protests, the cat is always there, like the banner of some romantic, underground revolutionary movement. Ethereal connections are even made between the watchful cats and pop-culture happenings, like the French Sid & Nancy story of a few years back, when actress Marie Trintignant was beaten to death by her boyfriend Bertrand Cantant, leader of a popular rock band.
Marker maintains a detached omniscience throughout the piece, commenting on events as though reading about them from the pages of a history book, although his political inclinations are never in doubt. Grinning Cat is something of a sequel to a 1977 film, unseen by me, called Grin Without a Cat, which comments on the state of the French left. The issue Grinning Cat sticks with the longest, before floating on to other topics, is the 2002 French election, in which hard-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen stunned France and all of Europe by placing second in the first round of the Presidential elections. This passage is one of the few in the film that is uncluttered by flighty, off-topic observations; Marker wants to tell the story in its entirety. Other points of discussion include an AIDS-related 'die in' protest and the phenomenon of flash mobs. The fondness of the film for diving into sidebars, combined with its basement production values -- was it filmed with a camcorder? -- makes it a sometimes grating, unpleasant experience, despite the intriguing charm of those darn cats.
The tendency of the director to become easily-sidetracked, perhaps a byproduct of his advanced age as much as his artistic quirks, can be summed up in the way he recounts the first place he saw the cat. "The first cat I spotted was not on a roof, but in one of the rail locations that had not changed in over 60 years," he tells us, immediately adding that the location was a spot of tremendous importance for pre-war French cinema, where the films of Marcel Carne were screened. This leads us directly into a layover of dialogue from Carne's Hotel du Nord: "I've been called names before, but never 'Atmosphere'!" When a grinning cat appears on the wall of a church and is promptly washed away, Marker steams, comparing that act to the Taliban blowing up the Buddha statues in Afghanistan. "Given their respective environments, both obscurantisms show two faces of the same coin!" Needless to say, a certain affection for the effervescent sentimentality and coffee-shop philosophy that pervades Marker's work is necessary in order to enjoy Grinning Cats.
The best scenes occur in the Paris subway system, where the onrush of life melts most successfully into the format of matching raw video footage to weightless musings. In one quite beautiful moment, the cats on the subway wall are put aside for a moment so the camera can eyeball a pigeon hopping along the platform. "The next surprise is to watch a pigeon transforming itself into a man," the narrator whispers, as we see the pigeon take flight and disappear around the corner of a corridor. The camera follows it, and once we get around the corner we no longer see the pigeon, but a man walking away from the camera. Subway musicians play cello and violin -- "the musicians get a standing ovation, but of course the people were standing anyway!" -- and the camera floats down the escalator, capturing faces. Nervous-looking people, shabbily dressed, are zoomed in on and become the focus of more comment: "In the metro, you meet the destitute and the tourists, equally lost. You too get lost at times, unless you join the society of those who are simply lost in their thoughts."
Churlish though it may be, my biggest complaint about Grinning Cats is that it was inarguably made on the cheap, and is noticeably free of any constraints of editing. It's a video essay charting the unbridled observations of one filmmaker, with seemingly little regard for flow or for perfecting the experience that will befall the audience member. When the film wants to stop and be didactic, explaining Politics 101, it does so. When it wants to talk about the history of cats, specifically the history of cat symbolism through the ages, then it's time for that as well. A documentary of feelings or musings is fine, and few would be more qualified than Marker for such a thing, but a savvy viewer can smell filler material a mile away, and my olfactory nerves were burning with that smell from time to time. Despite its shortcomings, Grinning Cats is an intriguing work. It's a film to watch on a rainy day when you want to sit in an empty movie theater and tap into what kind of revolutionary thoughts are stirring in Paris.