Dirs. Guillaume and Stephane Malandrin. Belgium-France-Holland. 2007. 103 mins
When an Olympic-level Belgian diver played by Cecile De France emerges from a coma, elements from several film genres - all of them interesting - seem out to get her in Hand of the Headless Man. De France's sober, nuanced performance anchors a story whose potent tone of apprehension stems from harsh emotional violence, potential imaginary elements and a cinematic knack for drawing the eeriness out of its striking locations.
Although this isn't the sort of film that makes anybody rich, parts of it are richly memorable - it's a tense, moody mystery which has sold well for Wild Bunch internationally prior to its French debut and could reap modest awards for daring distributors and festival programmers.
Crafted by the brothers Stephane and Guillaume Malandrin, Hand... is a quantum leap past Guillaume's I Don't Care if Tomorrow Never Comes (2006) and offers a denouement as effective as his award-winning short Raconte.
Hand's opening scene at a swim meet in Amsterdam is shot and edited with such skill that viewers are quickly conditioned to accept almost anything that happens in an increasingly bizarre, always-troubling narrative universe.
High-diver Eva (De France) trains with monastic devotion under demanding coach Peter (Ulrich Tukur), who is also her father. She is close to her older brother Mathias (Lanners), a former swim champion himself who is now as lumpy and unfit as she is lean and athletic. These days, Mathias fashions sculptures and has a show of his work slated for the cavernous interior of the imposing Koekelberg Cathedral in Brussels. Mathias and Peter have been mutually disgusted with each other for years, and their brief interactions quickly devolve into contempt laced with menace.
When Eva awakens from her coma, she can't get Mathias to answer her phone calls. A doctor with a very dark sense of humour has warned Eva to stay out of the water for a while and to take it easy. He also cautions that she may experience memory disturbances.
Eva clearly recalls leaving her beloved cat with Mathias before leaving for the meet. But now there's no cat and no brother. Meanwhile, two thugs - one without a hand - stalk and corner Eva with unnerving authority.
Peter forces his daughter to start swimming laps immediately, but Eva can't shake the idea that her father doesn't really want what's best for her. As Francois Truffaut once wrote: 'Where is one better off than in the bosom of one's family' Absolutely anywhere!'
Jeff Mercelis's pleasingly discordant score bolsters the film's sustained aura of unease.
La Parti Production
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Marc Van Warmerdam
Guillaume and Stephane Malandrin
Anne Laure Guegan
Cecile De France
Tamar van den Dop