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MOVIE REVIEW

This 'Cat' is witty look at French political culture

A graffiti cat that began appearing on walls around France after 9/11 inspired filmmaker Chris Marker to investigate. (first run/icarus films)

"The Case of the Grinning Cat" is further evidence of Chris Marker's exhilarating wit. His hour-long cinema essay, which plays at the Brattle through Thursday, offers a snapshot of France that's been realized in Marker's daydreamy developer fluid.

After 9/11, a work of graffiti known as Monsieur Chat began to show up on chimneys and elsewhere around the country. The original artists remain anonymous, but maintaining their creation's ubiquity seems to have been a community effort. A man with a big cat fancy, Marker goes looking for these reproductions in Paris, but he has metaphysical concerns in mind . Monsieur Chat is real and imaginary, literal and figurative, fixed in place but elastic in meaning. This seems right for an image whose most remarkable feature is its Cheshire smile. (Its second most remarkable feature is that it often looks ready to do parkour ; apparently M. Chat is up on his Gallic athletic trends.)

Best known in American film courses for 1962's "La Jetée," Marker conducts his quest in impressionistic bouts of whimsy and disdain. "The Case of the Grinning Cat" is best when it's both at once: whimsically disdainful. Gérard Rinaldi narrates the director's thoughts in English, while his film bubbles into a political stew of its time. It considers, among other things, Jacques Chirac's rather complacent bid for reelection, and the rise of the virulently right-wing Jean-Marie Le Pen. Marker also follows the national reaction to America's invasion of Iraq.

The notion of the anti-immigrant Le Pen as president seemed to rock many French from the self-satisfaction they shared with Chirac. And the war became the country's biggest public cause. But Marker humorously mocks these collective urges. He finds the rhetoric empty -- even by rhetoric's standards -- and the protesters' moral math wanting. They insist Saddam Hussein, whose image is brandished shamelessly during a rally, hasn't harmed the United States. But he did gas the Kurds, the narrator reminds us.

Marker uses his left-leaning sensibility to critique liberal fecklessness. In his digital-video eye, the happy flash mob that begins the movie seems scarcely different from the sundry youth-driven protests, marches, and rallies he captures later on. At one event, Monsieur Chat appears on a banner, casting an unfortunate pall of frivolity over the proceedings ("Make cats not war," says the banner). That kind of vapid insouciance is a source of irritation and bemusement for the filmmaker. Marker sees to it that the very presence of that darn cat and his Kool-Aid smile is an open-ended insinuation: He grins at everybody.

More personally political and more than two hours shorter than Marker's previous Lewis Carroll-derived polemic, 1977's " Grin Without a Cat," this new movie is an exceptional flight of conviction. "Grin Without a Cat" brilliantly used montage and a wide intellectual scope to speculate about the history of war and revolution. "Grinning Cat" is a more modest achievement, but the director's wisdom remains robust.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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