Film » Screens

Troubles With Harry

The spirit of Hitchcock pops up in a deft French thriller.

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Harry breaks the ice with his old acquaintance, - Michel.
  • Harry breaks the ice with his old acquaintance, Michel.
Just when we culturally deprived, mystery-starved Americans were convinced that that most delicious of movie genres, the French thriller, was dead and buried, a literate and exciting new filmmaker named Dominik Moll has emerged to revive it -- and set our nerves exquisitely on edge. It's a minor miracle that With a Friend Like Harry has slipped through the economic net that keeps most French films on the other side of the Atlantic these days. It's worth celebrating that Harry is such a smart, scary, and amusing piece of work.

Like Truffaut before him, writer/director Moll says his favorite filmmaker is Alfred Hitchcock, and that giant's mark is evident on this twisted tale about a magnetic stranger who attaches himself to a bourgeois couple trying to cope with the mundane demands of parenthood. Moll has studied Hitchcock's submerged wit, elegant camera movements, and gift for surprise, and subtle homages to all three show up here. That said, let's also say that this is a highly original film blessed with fetching complications all its own and some hair-raising turns of plot.

When first we see them, Moll's unsuspecting husband and wife, Michel and Claire (Laurent Lucas and Mathilde Seigner), are plodding through a hellish summer vacation with three bickering children in the backseat of the car. Their nerves are frazzled, and their marriage is clearly on hold. When the family stops for gas, Michel goes to the men's room and finds himself in casual conversation with a smiling, unruffled fellow traveler named Harry (Sergi Lopez). As it happens, the two were once schoolmates. Michel barely remembers that fact, but to the inquisitive Harry it seems awfully important, and upon that Moll constructs a world of trouble and intrigue. It begins with a drink at the couple's ramshackle summer house and ends at the bottom of an abandoned well.

While Moll and his talented cast (especially the creepy and captivating Lopez) spin an emotional web around us, we can't escape the notion that, in his insistent new friend, Michel has discovered his other, darker self. In Freudian terms, Michel is all uptight superego, Harry sheer, unfettered id. Seen another way, Michel's dutiful Dr. Jekyll toils in the lab, Harry's Mr. Hyde wreaks havoc on the midnight streets.

Suffice it to say that, in this heady, wonderfully entertaining drama of personality conflict and disturbed yearning, there's as much going on in the high intellect department as on the homicidal mayhem front -- and that's always a good thing for audiences who've long since wearied of mere bloodletting. Nightmare on Elm Street this ain't.

Meanwhile, don't let on to the French culture police, but the creator of this taut and satisfying thriller is actually a German who studied at the City University of New York before matriculating in Paris. So while Harry seems thoroughly French in mood and manner, Moll's pedigree turns out to be delectably international.

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