Have you ever thought you could really do something with your life … paint, write, design a better widget … if only there weren’t so many distractions?
Harry can help. He’s the physical manifestation of all those repressed impulses to simplify and focus your life, and he’s not afraid to do the things you won’t do. This barrel-chested, slightly creepy Frenchman wants you to reach your potential, and he won’t listen to any of the excuses you make for yourself. Sure, Harry takes things a little too far, but as he tells the object of his help, “Excess is the only way to fulfillment.”
Michel Pape doesn’t recall Harry Ballestero, but man, does Harry ever remember Michel. These two thirtysomethings went to school together, and Harry fondly remembers Michel’s adolescent writings in the school magazine. He also remembers the day Michel knocked Harry’s teeth out during a handball game. He even remembers a girl they both dated who much preferred Michel.
When they meet in the men’s room at a highway convenience store, Harry isn’t content to exchange awkward hellos. He tracks down Michel again in the parking lot, where he’s piling his wife and three young daughters into a ratty car with no air conditioning for a miserably long drive to their ramshackle summer cottage. Harry, the picture of comfort in a Mercedes, invites himself and his cute blonde girlfriend, Plum, up to the cottage for a drink.
So begins With a Friend Like Harry, a superb comedic noir thriller from writer-director Dominik Moll, a German who works in France. Harry (Sergi Lopez) quickly begins to get profoundly creepy, although our first image of him—hands still wet from washing, staring knowingly at Michel (Laurent Lucas) for way too long—gives us a clue that with Harry, nothing will ever be quite normal.
Harry and Plum follow Michel and his wife Claire (Mathilde Seigner) back to the cottage, where they’re stunned to find—amidst a run-down, rustic mess of a building—one bathroom perfectly refinished in pink. It’s a surprise gift from Michel’s parents, and it’s just one of several comic touches that allow the film to masquerade as a black comedy until we realize Harry has silently volunteered himself for the bizarre task of making Michel’s life easier in whatever way he sees fit.
It’s not nearly as weird as it sounds, at least until you look back on it after the wonderfully preposterous ending. Moll uses plenty of black humor and compelling dialogue as Harry slowly slips into Michel’s life—so slowly that his increasingly extravagant gestures seem plausible.
Because money is no object for him, Harry buys Michel and Claire a new SUV to replace their broken-down car. When family pressures begin to weigh on Michel, Harry is there to do whatever he deems necessary to allow Michel to make the most of himself—and to continue the teenage writings with which Harry is unaccountably obsessed. Or is it really Harry who has the obsession?
It’s easy to see Alfred Hitchcock’s influence on this film, which won several Cesars (French Oscars) last year, but Moll is a much less showy director than Hitchcock. He’s content to let his actors build the atmosphere, particularly with Lopez’s wonderfully off-kilter performance. Aside from his uncanny facial similarities to hockey player Ray Bourque, Lopez is pure suppressed menace in a harmless package. Everything about him looks non-confrontational, from his nice clothes to his nice car to his omnipresent smile—but as we gradually learn, Harry has no intention of doing things quietly.
Lucas and Seigner, though they look more like Calvin Klein models than harried parents, do nice jobs as Everymen thrust into an increasingly bizarre situation. Perhaps the film’s greatest achievement is how gradually it descends into a nightmarish thriller. Moll allows no horrific violence or drastic changes in tone; every move is somewhat cerebral and mysterious, and always tinged with comedy, so by the end we’re still wondering how much of Harry actually existed.
Even as he finds the long-lost potential Harry has awakened, Michel is forced to fend off the excesses of Harry’s help. Harry may even be crazy, but he also provides Michel with the impetus he didn’t even know he needed. In perhaps his creepiest move of all, Moll asks us if we couldn’t all use a friend like Harry.
With a Friend Like Harry (R) HHH1/2 Directed by Dominik Moll. Starring Laurent Lucas, Sergi Lopez and Mathilde Seigner.