French director Chris Marker is a pioneer of the "essay film," a form that strips away the essential grammar of movies - the necessity of plot, story and character - in favor of an idiosyncratic, prickly, highly personal style that privileges nuance and self-reflection.
Marker's extraordinary, thrilling "A Grin Without a Cat," a political reconsideration of the New Left, is a poetic, psychological inquiry into the tumult and historical disruption occasioned by Vietnam, the Paris student movements of May 1968, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the coup that toppled Salvador Allende's socialist government in Chile in 1973.
The 82-year-old Marker originally unveiled the French version in 1977 and then reconstructed and reinterpreted the material in 1993 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. This version of the movie, opening Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, features an English-language soundtrack, punctuated with rueful, sardonic, politically pointed commentary by artists such as the late exiled American filmmaker Robert Kramer, allowing for a collective narrator and acerbic counterweight. ("The politics changed quicker than the music," says one commentator.)
Structurally the movie is split into two 90-minute parts, subtitled, respectively, "Fragile Hands" and "Severed Hands," beginning with an extract from Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein's revolutionary silent film "Battleship Potemkin."
Eisenstein's montage theories of rhythm, cutting and movement revolutionized the cinema, and Marker's thrilling, stylized and dialectical use of editing and synthesis is equally breathtaking. Drawing on anonymous newsreel footage, propaganda materials, clandestine imagery and astonishing work he collected in Europe, the United States and Latin America.
Marker constructs an elaborate political and ideological backdrop of vivid personalities and terrifying social conflict. The amazing footage includes an interview with an American bomber pilot admitting the near sensual pleasure he derives from strafing a Vietcong stronghold. ("I really like to do that," he says.) Later, there is a detached, matter-of-fact interview with a Pentagon official who trained the Bolivian army that captured and killed guerrilla revolutionary Che Guevera.
At home, Marker shows the destabilizing student revolts that nearly destroyed the Fifth Republic and the government of Charles De Gaulle. This is politics as street theater, with Marker alluding to how history and revolutionary movements were subverted by the frantic, the self-serving and the deliriously overwrought.
"A Grin Without a Cat" is a stunning work visually, not just the arrangement of shots, but the layered imagery, the symphony of sound and movement, the full tonal range of black and white footage played off against the tinted, almost hallucinatory quality of the color stocks. The alternately spectacular and dreadful Vietnam footage produces a constant sense of the ground literally shifting beneath your feet. This is a movie about the world at war with itself, and the result is riveting, sublime and unforgettable.
4 stars (out of 4)
"A Grin Without a Cat"
Directed by Chris Marker, opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.; 312-846-2600. (In English, French and Spanish; English subtitled.) Running time: 3:05. No MPAA rating (harsh imagery, violence, adult themes).