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.