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Case of the Grinning Cat, The

Other // Unrated // September 2, 2008
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Chris Neilson | posted September 27, 2008 | E-mail the Author
A direct translation of the title of Chris Marker's 2004 made-for-television cine-essay Chats perchés would be "Perched Cats." However, when it received a limited theatrical run in the United States as The Case of the Grinning Cat it was not just the title that had changed.

Chris Marker had used a light touch in Chats perchés, limiting himself to intertitles for narration. However, an extended voiceover was added to the American release, re-titled The Case of the Grinning Cat. Although the original French intertitles were retained, they were not translated. Instead, with heavily-accented English, French television actor Gerard Rinaldi meticulously explains everything. At minimum, this verbose voiceover changes the viewing experience and arguably lessens it considerably.

Although it would seem that the DVD release could have made everyone happy by providing both versions (one with voiceover, and one with just the intertitles and optional translations), this was not done. Alas, the release by Icarus Films contains only the Americanized version.

The Case of the Grinning Cat is a 58-minute jocular cine-essay constructed from video shot by Chris Marker between November 2001 and spring 2004 on the streets and metro of Paris. The motif is a search for an explanation to the mysterious graffiti depicting a bright-yellow grinning cat, reminiscent of Lewis Carroll's Cheshire cat or Hayao Miyazaki's Totoro, that first appeared shortly after 9/11 on a few Parisian buildings, but later became ubiquitous.

Though Mr. Cat provides Marker his motif, The Case of the Grinning Cat is as wide-ranging and discursive as anything Marker's ever done, though frequently coming back to the reaction in the street to post-9/11 American and French politics. Sweetly, Marker also indulges his eye for pretty girls--they appear inordinately often--but never does manage to solve the mystery of Mr. Cat.

Presentation
Video:
Shot with a small hand-held video camera, the interlaced 1.33:1 image suffers from compression artifacts and poor color, but is nonetheless adequate to Marker's purpose.

Audio:
Surprisingly the voiceover from Gerard Rinaldi is muffled and sounds much worse than the audio of Parisian street life recorded with a built-in camera microphone.

Extras:
When The Case of the Grinning Cat was shown theatrically, it was preceded by five Marker shorts about animals: Cat Listening to Music (2:57) in which Marker's beloved Guillaume-en-Egypte listens to a piano sonata by Federico Mompou (this short was previously used for the intermission between parts 1 and 2 of The Last Bolshevik); An Owl is an Owl is an Owl (3:21), an enchanting visit to an owl aviary accompanied by electronic music; Zoo Piece (2:47), a montage of animals in confinement from rhinos at the zoo to cats at the pound; Bullfight in Okinawa (4:10), Japanese black bulls do their best impressions of sumo wrestlers; and, Slon Tango (4 min.) in which an elephant dances to the accompaniment of Igor Stravinsky's Tango. These shorts are included in their entirety along with two others: Three Cheers for the Whale (17 min.), co-directed with Mario Ruspoli, an indictment of whaling; and, Leila Attacks (>1 min.) in which Marker's cat is chased by a rat.

Final Thoughts:
Chris Marker's most recent cine-essay is a jocular look at Parisian graffiti that offers an opportunity to consider post-9/11 French politics and street life. Though Marker never manages to get to the bottom of the mystery of the Mr. Cat graffiti (nobody did until the obscure artist Thoma Vuille was caught red-handed by police in 2007), the pursuit is enjoyable.

There's nothing obtuse or exotic here, and thus no reason for the voiceover narrative. It's a shame that Icarus Films didn't provide both the original Chats perchés and the Americanized The Case of the Grinning Cat on this DVD release. As is, it's impossible to wholeheartedly recommend this one.

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