The Case of the Grinning Cat opens with a a whimsical "public action" in Paris where people congregate with their umbrellas in an outdoor area and open and close their umbrellas at a predetermined time. It's a simple event that is neither protest or celebration, but a show of collective ability. In the eyes of veteran French leftists, it probably seems silly. But not to Chris Marker, who finds something charming about this and other recent public gatherings and demonstrations from a generation that, in his own words, had been written off as being apolitical. The resurgence in political demonstrations in Paris is something that Marker finds hope in, even if it is cautious hope. The Case of the Grinning Cat ends up being a postscript to Marker's previous film (and similarly titled) A Grin Without a Cat (1977) that was made at the end of an era as a sort of eulogy to the Left (with a capital "L".)
The recent essay cum investigation cum video from Chris Marker, who was 85 the year it was released in 2004, encapsulates the post-9/11 Parisian collective unconscious as in takes place under the benevolent omniscience of a grinning cat. The cat under investigation (signed "M. Chat", or Mr. Cat) is a street art character that began showing up in Paris (on buildings, in the subway, on bridges, even on trees) in 2001. Like the Catbus in Miyazaki's Totoro, Paris' M. Chat is instantly likable as an image and a playful character, sometime adorned with wings or an olive branch in its mouth or simply bounding from one rooftop to another. (Here's a great example of M. Chat found in Sarajevo.) M. Chat's appearance coincides with a wave of public demonstrations in Paris starting with protests against extreme right-wing candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002, and marching on from protests against the war in Iraq to demonstrations for those who have lost their lives to AIDS.
The Case of the Grinning Cat is a lighthearted investigation that is fully aware of the contradictions present in contemporary society. The irony that the anti-Le Pen sentiment allowed for the re-election of Jacques Chirac is not lost on Marker. As a matter of fact, not much is lost on Marker as he goes from demonstration to demonstration finding things that encourage him and amuse him as he contemplates his thoughts through narrator Gérard Rinaldi. Although it is heartening to see young people passionately demonstrating against war, he is quick to point out also that equally passionate crowds gather "to watch eleven billionaires kick a ball." The Case of the Grinning Cat, originally made for television, shows Marker at his best: intelligent, playful, curious, sincere and unassuming - this is his gift to the audience as he leads us through whatever random social or philosophical association comes up between protests and images of M. Chat. Describing Marker's films never fails in sounding like an aimless documentary with no context. Quite the opposite, the context is the launching point from which thought and ideas can take off. And in this case, the context is this short period of time from late 2001 to 2004 in which M. Chat graces the streets of Paris along side a not-so ambivalent population. For those who have never seen a Marker film, the result is mesmerizing.
The Case of the Grinning Cat was recently released on DVD by Icarus Films through the Wexner Center where they are hosting a Chris Marker store. (I like living in a world where there is a Chris Marker store. I want that t-shirt.) There are intertitles and occasional conversations in French that are not directly translated , and although I doubt that I really missed much, it would have been nice to have some subtitles. The DVD opens with the very silly Leila Attacks and contains six of Marker's short films that go along with the animal theme: Cat Listening to Music, An Owl is an Owl is an Owl, Zoo Piece, Bullfight in Okinawa, Slon Tango, and Three Cheers for the Whale.