Fusing a deliciously macabre plotline with offbeat arty treatment, Marc Recha’s “Where Is Madame Catherine?” is an idiosyncratic but satisfyingly human comic drama that’s the most accessible venture to date by the Catalan helmer. Ultimately a warm-hearted study of an impoverished but tightly knit community — original French title literally means “Empty Hands” — pic is buoyed by fine performances and, despite occasional longueurs, makes unexpectedly engrossing viewing. Pic should play strongly on French and Spanish arthouse circuits, with further fest showings following its preem in Cannes’ Certain Regard sidebar. Recha’s last feature, “Pau and His Brother,” competed on the Croisette in 2001.
Set in a French coastal village close to the Spanish border, pic opens with Madame Catherine (Dominique Marcas) and mechanic friend Eric (Olivier Gourmet) getting raucously drunk, after which, it is later revealed, Madame Catherine has a heart attack and dies. Badly in debt, Eric finds a stash of Madame’s money and decides to keep it, thereby setting off an increasingly tangled chain of circumstances.
This starts out with Eric dressing up as Madame by night so her neighbors won’t realize she’s dead. He’s also forced to look on in helpless desperation as construction work begins on a new park right where he’s buried her body. When Madame’s new prosthetic arm is delivered, Eric throws it in the trash; but the arm is then picked up by a vagabond and begins a comic journey through the movie.
When Madame’s wildly irritating parrot escapes, and bar owner Yann (Pierre Berriau) tries to return the bird, Eric confesses to Yann what he has done. Soon, local gendarme Jean-Claude (Luis Hostalot) is being asked to help with the cover-up. Pic gently points out that the similarities between the villagers — living together in a neither/nor location between sea and mountain, Spain and France, past and present — are greater than the differences.
Other stories weave in and out. Eric flirts clumsily with Jean-Claude’s lover, Maria (Eulalia Ramon). Gerard (Spanish thesp Eduardo Noriega, in a very different role than usual) briefly works for Eric and befriends Eric’s diabetic, onetime juvenile offender nephew, Axel (Jeremie Lippman).
Dialogue, as always in Recha’s films, is used thriftily: This is a community in which people do rather than talk about doing. However, given the large number of characters, the shortage of dialogue sometimes places a heavy interpretative burden on the viewer. There’s a feeling that Recha is more interested in recording what happens between the plot points, which is simply life itself going on.
Still, performances are top-notch, with Gourmet a standout as the blinking, bespectacled Eric, who thinks he’s seized the only opportunity life will ever give him only to see it all turn into an absurdist nightmare.
Lensing by Helen Louvart is often hand-held and generally unconventional, with the main action taking place some distance from the camera and some arresting, off-the-wall detail in the foreground. Lyrics to simplistic Europop tunes by Dominique A. provide a running commentary on the action, but the music itself sometimes conflicts with mood.
The vast majority of the dialogue is in French with just a few remarks in Catalan.