Approaching 85, cine-essayist Chris Marker remains as lively, engaged, and provocative as ever—and no less fond of indirection. (His La Jetée is not only a movie about the pathos of time travel, but a rumination on film-watching as well.) Marker’s hour-long video The Case of the Grinning Cat meditates on the state of post–9-11 French politics, taking as its apparent subject the enigmatic M. Chat, who in late 2001 began appearing, as if by magic, on Paris rooftops, walls, and métro stations.
This anonymously produced graffito—a wide-eyed, broadly smiling, boldly cartooned, bright-yellow feline—spread to other cities, and Marker does his part, matting M. Chat into artworks from cave paintings to van Goghs. During the 2002 French election that saw right-wing centrist Jacques Chirac defeat right-wing extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen, M. Chat took to the streets. Cat placards and masks dotted the anti–Le Pen demonstrations and appeared in crowds rallying against Bush’s war.
Quintessential Marker, The Case of the Grinning Cat is a digressive, serendipitous city portrait—and M. Chat is, of course, one icon among many. (World Cup buildup fills Paris with giant images of soccer deities.) Marker’s epic 1977 essay on the French new left is called
Grin Without a Cat; this sequel might be the latest installation in the filmmaker’s ongoing project, as halfway through, the cat disappears, leaving Marker to his grin: documenting the public life of early-21st-century Paris. Flash mobs gather; groups ranging from Muslim women to Tibetans to AIDS patients take to the streets.
In some respects—not least his ability to be au courant while lost in the past—this legendary, unclassifiable filmmaker is the French analogue to sometime diarist Jonas Mekas. Elaborating on Marker’s interests, The Case of the Grinning Cat is preceded by his whimsical bestiary, composed of five short animal pieces—Cat Listening to Music, An Owl Is an Owl Is an Owl, Zoo Piece, Bullfight in Okinawa, and Slon Tango. The filmmaker, however, is the rarest bird of all.