Dir: Marc Recha. Spain-France. 2003. 126mins.

Les Mains Buides (literally "empty hands" in Catalan but evocatively translated as Where Is Madame Catherine') does not represent a major departure from Marc Recha's previous effort, the mixed-reviewed 2001 Cannes competition contender Pau And His Brother. However, this Un Certain Regard entry should appease some of Pau's detractors with its more well-rounded storyline and better fleshed-out characters. Some comedic touches give the new film a lighter, less self-conscious feel as well, without detracting from the director's signature style and polished craftsmanship. However, the commercial reach of this French-language film (with some lines in Catalan) beyond French and Spanish arthouse audiences, the festival circuit and dedicated film-buff distributors, looks predictably narrow.

The presence of Spanish heartthrob Eduardo Noriega (Open Your Eyes) could draw certain audiences, but fans of his more commercial career to date will be surprised by this decidedly unglamourous and understated performance. Others may be attracted by lead actor Olivier Gourmet, who won the best actor award at Cannes last year for The Son (Le Fils). Gourmet does not disappoint with his generous embodiment of a hard-drinking yet well-meaning simpleton caught up by his own thick-headedness and greed in a missing-corpse whodunnit complete with a stash of cash-switching hands.

Noriega is Gerard, an enigmatic drifter whose arrival to, and departure from, a tiny Catalan-French border town frames the story. Gerard gets a handyman job from Eric and befriends his sickly, orphaned nephew Axel (an endearing Lippman). The quiet disappearance of the town's beloved mascot, the ancient Madame Catherine (Marcas), involves all the villagers, including bar-tender Yann (Berriau), permissive gendarme Jean-Claude (Hostalot), Eric's unfaithful lover Maria (Ramon) and his ambling sister Sophie (Perrier), among others.

The Catalan-French border setting - seen before in Pau - serves again as metaphor for the film's narrative and characters, as full of contradictions and ambiguities as the untamed coastal countryside, its political lines, criss-crossing train tracks and omnipresent industrial machinery. A missing prosthesis, which keeps turning up in the most unlikely of places, provides the real empty hand to the townspeople's figurative and literal ones.

On paper the plot may sound more Cookie's Fortune than Mifune, but Recha's sparing style is decidedly reminiscent of the Dogme school in its hand-held camerawork, natural lighting, lengthy takes, little action and less talk. Recha frames some gorgeous and memorable shots, and he films his warts-and-all characters with a doting attentiveness. The soundtrack gives soulful companionship to certain scenes with lyrics that are meant to form part of the narrative.

However, as in Pau, Recha expects the audience to glean more about his characters and plot than they necessarily will from the pared-down dialogues. Political undertones may not register either. At just over two hours, the film demands a lot from the audience. Certain elements, such as Eric's sister, confuse the central storyline without adding significantly to it. Recha's out-of-character decision to flash back to the key scene of Madame Catherine's death and Eric's discovery of her cash towards the end of the film, rather than leaving it in its sequential order, also withholds information without adding significant mystery to the plot.

Prod cos : Eddie Saeta, JBA Produccion, Arte France Cinema, FMB 2 Films
Sp dist:
Wanda Films
Int'l sales:
Eddie Saeta (Sp lang)/Film Distribution (rest of the world)
Exec prods:
Lluis Minarro, Jacques Bidou
Recha, Mireia Vidal, Nadine Lamari
Helene Louvart
Ernest Blasi
Prod des:
Patrick Dechense, Alain-Pascal Housiaux
Dominique A
Main cast:
Olivier Gourmet, Eduardo Noriega, Nireille Perrier, Eulalia Ramon, Jeremie Lippman, Luis Hostalot, Pierre Berriau