With a Friend Like Harry

Michel (Laurent Lucas, "Pola X") doesn't realize that he's slowly sinking under the weight of his responsibilities. On the road to a vacation home, which itself is a major renovation burden, with his stressed wife and three small girls, Michel pulls into a rest stop for some relief from the heat. In the washroom, Michel is approached by Harry, (Sergi Lopez, "An Affair of Love") an old schoolmate he hasn't seen in twenty years and barely remembers. The next thing Michel knows, Harry and his girlfriend Plum (Sophie Guillemin, "L'Ennui") are joining his vacation in Writer/Director Dominik Moll's "With a Friend Like Harry."

Laura's Review: B

While Michel is struggling, Harry lives the enviable good life of a man of inherited wealth, yet Harry immediately exhibits an almost obsessive regard for Michel. Harry shocks Michel by reciting a long poem, "The Dagger in the Skin of Night," which Michel had published in the school paper two decades earlier. Plum even pipes in that Harry has often recited it to her. Michel's wife Claire (Mathilde Seigner, "Venus Beauty Institute") is both wary of Harry and intrigued by this unknown aspect of her mate while we, the audience, begin to wonder just how random Harry's appearance in that rest stop really was.

As if Harry's invasion weren't enough, Michel is annoyed to discover that his meddling parents have taken it upon themselves to remodel the old farmhouse's bathroom in a garish, womb like pink. Harry observes this, then the breakdown of the old family car, and begins to help. His first gesture is shocking enough - he buys a new 4 wheel drive SUV for Michel. Then his actions begin to get a lot more personal.

Moll seems to be going for claustrophobic Hitchcockian suspense, even choosing the only male name ever to appear in a Hitchcock film for his own, yet "With a Friend Like Harry" feels a lot like George Sluizer's 1988 Spoorloos ("The Vanishing), another film that features a fateful rest stop, an old farmhouse and earthy excavations. Moll knows how to build tension, apparent at the onset with that nightmarish family car trip, yet ultimately is unable to sustain it. The ambiguity surrounding Harry's persona and motivations lets the air out of the film's climax.

Still, the film has more going for it than not. Art Director Michel Barthelemy gets just the right level of fixer-upperness for the beautifully set vacation home to see the fanciful possibilities before reality sets in. Director of Photography Matthieu Poirot-Delpech is able to capture that house, the roads to it, and even Michel himself in lights both flattering and sinister. Sound Engineer Francois Maurel has done an expert job capturing ominous rumblings, nightmarish whirrings and staccato shrieks while original music by David Sinclair Whittaker provides effective (if a bit obvious) flourishes to the visuals.

"With a Friend Like Harry" (the original English title was "Harry, He's Here to Help") was nominated for 9 Cesars (the French Oscar), winning Best Director and Best Actor. While I appreciate Lopez' performance, I found Lucas to have the more difficult job - one which he navigates adroitly. Seigner fleshes out complexities for Claire while Guillemin makes a simple character positively endearing. Moll has proved he can create mood and work with actors, yet his storytelling, while psychologically detailed on many levels, doesn't fully satisfy yet, with this, his second film. I for one am looking forward to his third.

Robin's Review: B

Every so often, a filmmaker, usually European, takes on the task of making a "Hitchcockian thriller." Paul Verhoeven was successful with his lurid and sexy 1983 flick, "The Fourth Man." George Sluizer gave the master an even better turn in the Dutch/French produced "The Vanishing." Now, West German born Dominik Moll takes a shot at Hitch with his own psychological thriller, "With a Friend Like Harry...."

Alfred Hitchcock still holds the mantle of master of the chilling thriller, but it is nice to see a film that ably pays homage to the late, great filmmaker. Helmer Moll, working with a script co-written with Gilles Marchand, begins his film on a discordant note as we watch a young couple and their three restless kids drive off to the French countryside for vacation. The kids are cranky, it's hot and the drive is taking on interminable proportions for dad, Michel (Laurent Lucas).

When the family takes a break at a rest stop, Michel meets a man who claims to know him. Harry (Sergi Lopez) tells him that they knew each other in school, years before, but Michel can't recall the man at all. This doesn't stop Harry from insinuating himself and his buxom fiance, Plum (Sophie Guillemin), on Michel and his wife, Claire (Mathilde Seigner), and their vacation plans. The couple has an old farmhouse, which they are struggling to restore, in the countryside and the newcomers promptly plunk themselves down to stay, changing their own plans to go see the Materhorn.

Everything starts off seemingly innocent, but the odd-acting Harry definitely has his share of enigmatic quirks. Late one night, while Michel is taking care of the baby, he announces that he needs to eat a raw egg after each orgasm to improve his virility. On a shopping expedition with Claire, Harry decides to buy the family an expensive SUV, against Michel's protest. The old school chum appears just to be helping his friend to take care of "life's problems," but how he takes care of them is the crux of "With a Friend Like Harry...."

In the best tradition of Hitch, Dominik Moll uses many of the old master's tricks to depict violence and convey real tension to his audience. Mayhem takes place all through the film, but it is done almost exclusively off screen, cleverly making the viewer build the horror of the scene in his/her mind. Additionally, the score, by David Sinclair Whittaker, has the same tense quality that the great Bernard Herrmann gave to many of Hitchcock's films ? who can ever forget the screeching violins in "Psycho?"

The cast, with one exception, maintains a low-key presence throughout the film. Sergi Lopez, as the enigmatic and dangerous Harry, gives a psycho edge to his performance that conveys volumes with a wicked gleam of the eye or an overconfident smirk on his lips. Right from the start, his outward affability carries an edge to it as Harry goes about his business of insinuating himself into Michel's life. Harry carries a lot of baggage from his past, including a long-standing but hidden obsession for Michel. No explanation is offered for Harry's bizarre, deadly behavior, keeping us in the dark about his motives. This is a problem as the enigma about Harry is carried too long and answers to our questions are left dangling in the end.

The production, oftentimes shot with a dark, sinister quality by Matthieu Poirot-Delpech, maintains the edgy nature that Moll needs to convey to keep the chills in his thriller. Actor Lopez isn't going to replace Anthony Perkins's Norman Bates as the quintessential movie monster, but with a friend like Harry....