Whereas French movies that thrived in export markets used to be sexy, overly intellectual, or both, When the Cat's Away--due out June 20 in the US from Sony Pictures Classics--is neither. Cedric Klapisch's low-budget effort shows several generations co-existing in one of Paris's funky old working-class neighborhoods in transition. Hip but mostly lonely young people live right next to utterly unhip but self-possessed elderly women. A cat goes astray and the otherwise disparate area denizens informally look for the possibly purloined or perambulating pussy. The end.

If that sounds like a recipe for a feline flop, think again. When the Cat's Away was the second most profitable French film of 1996 at the domestic box office and in April 1997, at the one-year anniversary of its release, was still drawing customers. It has also made a respectable showing in Belgium, French-speaking Canada, and England, was picked up by Sony Classics at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and opened this year's New Directors/New Films series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in late March.

If Cat digs its claws into American turf, it won't come as a surprise to the film's versatile DP, Benoit Delhomme. "I suspected filmgoers beyond France would find the film pleasing even when we were shooting it," explains Delhomme at the Cafe Cluny in central Paris. "We sort of poured on the village feeling. If you went for a walk in that neighborhood in the 11th arrondissement, you wouldn't have the same impression the film conveys. We especially emphasized framing-within-the-frame by placing characters in doorways or under arches, shooting them in courtyards or in silhouette." Although director Klapisch resides in another part of town, Delhomme lives not far from the slightly romanticized locations in the shadow of the Bastille where Cat was shot over a period of four weeks, following one brief but intense month of pre-production.

"Cedric deliberately chose an incredibly basic, banal idea to build the film around," says Delhomme of Cat's wisp of a narrative arc. "The missing cat was just an excuse for meeting the varied population of the quarter." The work was originally intended as a short film in what Klapisch hoped would be a multiple-director series highlighting the different administrative districts or arrondissements of Paris, but the omnibus concept never caught on. "Cedric was all alone," says Delhomme, "but the momentum was there, so the abandoned short was expanded into a feature."

The film makes use of more than 80 locations and combines performances from up-and-coming and semi-established young actors with plucky turns by a few of the elderly women who have lived in the quarter most of their lives. "We were aiming for a blend of docu and fiction, a sort of neorealism-meets-poetic-realism feel with a contemporary twist," says Delhomme, age 35, of the film's tone. "The artsy hipsters who paint or work in the fashion industry have grafted themselves onto the environment, but the grannies hark back to typical French films of the 1930s."

The fearless grannies pack a punch onscreen. "Old ladies don't have to prove a thing, so a camera doesn't faze them," says Delhomme, who always operates the camera himself and often filmed the oldsters handheld in their typical working-class apartments. "They have no actorish narcissism because they're not actresses who became grannies but grannies who became actresses. As long as the elderly remain, the memory of the quarter will survive," Delhomme adds, aware that some of the streets and buildings he filmed two summers ago have already been altered beyond recognition by gentrification.

Delhomme used strong lights for the late-night shots, with borderline-garish reds and yellows for the trendy crowd, while keeping the lighting far more naturalistic for what he calls "the grannies' world."

"In some films it's absolutely crucial to keep the lighting matched up from shot to shot," Delhomme admits, "but here we boosted the overall texture by not worrying about lighting continuity. It differs from scene to scene and I deliberately varied the color schemes from day to day."

This freewheeling approach couldn't be more different from Delhomme's follow-up project with Klapisch, the wildly successful screen adaptation of the play Un Air de Famille, a tragicomic chamber piece that takes place over the course of one late afternoon and long night. "That was quite an opportunity," Delhomme says of the popular hit that walked away with three Cesar awards. "It was shot entirely in the studio, mostly on one set, in chronological order. The sun heats up as it sets, then dusk gets cooler. I went from bright and harsh to evening tones, lighting the passage of time as one would in the theatre." Whereas the hit play had become second nature for the actors who reprised their stage roles in the rigorously controlled studio environment, When the Cat's Away thrived on the freshness and spontaneity born of necessity.

Delhomme's move to Paris from his native Cherbourg was also prompted by necessity. "If it's dramatic skies you're looking for, you can't beat Normandy," he says. "The light is everchanging and far more beautiful than in Paris. But in France, you don't have a choice. If you want to work in the film industry, you must relocate to Paris."

Delhomme, who had already experimented with still photography on his own, studied at the Ecole Louis Lumiere, where he got a solid grounding in the technical aspects of lighting and cinematography, graduating in 1982. "I don't like the tendency to lump DPs into the category of mere technicians," emphasizes Delhomme, who was admitted into the elite AFC (Association of French Cinematographers) with seven features--including Tran Ahn Hung's The Scent of Green Papaya and Cyclo under his belt--shortly before he began shooting Cat.

"Technique is absorbed--it's so second nature it's on the subconscious level. For doctors, we don't say 'health technicians,' " Delhomme points out. "Ours, like theirs, is a metier that incorporates technique."

Beyond a keen eye, mental and physical agility, and team spirit, Delhomme has definite ideas about his chosen profession. "I think it takes a specific personality to want to be a DP. I like to work hard. You have to be compelled to work in the service of someone else's vision, to translate their universe onto film. Directors often are at a loss to describe the pictures they see in their own head. You take your inspiration from the director to produce the images he requires."

When it comes to lighting, Delhomme avers, "The harder the situation is, the better I like it." Following a habit he perfected when preparing Cyclo, Delhomme works up precise "lighting scripts" by filling notebooks with indications for levels of light, color, and contrast, often gluing in existing images that convey the atmosphere sought. For Cat, Delhomme looked at recent fashion photographs, but also referred back to the classic films of Rene Clair and Marcel Carne.

Delhomme worked with a small, flexible crew: one gaffer and two electricians, one key grip and one grip, one focus puller and one loader, and two camera assistants. "We're a tight team, we can work quickly without talking too much," Delhomme says. As much as he enjoys the challenges of lighting a scene, his greatest pleasure lies in the physicality of the camera and its viewfinder: "Framing the shot is pure joy, a moment of unadulterated happiness. Light exists whether film stock captures it or not--stepping in and framing the shot is what makes it cinema.

"For me," Delhomme elaborates, "there's no more euphoric feeling than shooting a continuous handheld shot. You become the actor--you have to think like he thinks to follow his movements. Even if the camera is heavy, you forget--you're absorbed into the euphoria of the shot."

For Cat, Delhomme used a compact Moviecam with fast Zeiss lenses, shooting Kodak 5245 outside and 5278 inside, pushing the film one stop to render the colors more contrasty. HMIs and fluorescents provided most of the light needed. "The trick is to find the best idea for each scene, for each environment. In the bar I used little colored spots on wires. Sometimes it just comes down to turning on a lamp or turning it off. You have to know when."

Of his craft in general, Delhomme says, "It's great to wait for the perfect moment of natural light and to recreate it in the studio. With computers now you can mold light seamlessly. The DP's job doesn't stop when the shoot is over--the shoot is just the raw material. If the DP isn't on hand when they time and make the prints, it can be disastrous. My job is only over when the film is in the theatres."

Delhomme has also lit two stage productions by the playwright/director Tilly, whose debut film Far from Brazil the DP also shot. "Movies look the way they do based on a combination of industrial factors: the speed of the film stock, the lenses you use, and so on," says Delhomme. "In the theatre one has the luxury of lighting for the human eye, which has a sensitivity that film emulsion cannot approach. It's like working on a painting. You think of a ribbon of light for one and a half hours. Film light is fractured--editing creates the continuity. In theatre you create the continuity. In the theatre I can do things that haven't been done yet, whereas in cinema, everything's been done."

So, what if moviemaking were to come to an abrupt end, as extinct as the dinosaurs from one day to the next? "I'd be thrilled if cinema didn't exist anymore," says Delhomme with a burst of enthusiasm. "It would free me to work harder on my painting."

Lisa Nesselson is a Paris-based freelancer specializing in film. She has never owned a cat or a TV set. Her e-mail address is Chibik@aol.com.