Just when we culturally deprived, mystery-starved Americans were convinced that the 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 the vast majority of 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. So, then: Vive la France! At least until the guardians of Gallic purity start bitching again about the pernicious influence that our Big Macs, our pop groups and our alien verbs have on their onion soup.
Like Truffaut before him, writer-director Moll says his favorite filmmaker is Alfred Hitchcock, and that giant's mark is evident -- in oblique ways -- 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. So do Moll's affections for the pop frights of Stephen King (Harry is subtly flavored by both The Shining and Misery) and, if I don't miss my guess, his close reading of Joseph Conrad, in whose masterworks the moral crisis is always invading the double life.
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 and no air conditioning up front. 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 López). 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.
The trouble with Harry? Well, it wouldn't do to reveal too much, but as this handsome charmer burrows ever deeper into the lives of Michel and Claire, we pick up some strange clues. First, the guy is well-off, as evidenced by his Mercedes-Benz roadster, his ease with cash and his pneumatic bimbo (Sophie Guillemin), known to the world as Plum. Second, there is no apparent filter between Harry's desires and his willingness to act on them, regardless of consequence. Third, he has an unnatural fixation on a poem Michel scribbled back in grammar school. Fourth, he eats raw eggs after every orgasm -- the kind of detail that proves, despite all evidence to the contrary, that le cinéma français still lives and breathes.
In the mood for a cold-blooded murder or two? How about a meditation on the self-absorption of the artist? Or on the function of muses? Interested in dreams about monkeys that turn into short stories? Your man Dominik Moll is happy to oblige.
As you've probably sensed by now, With a Friend Like Harry may not really be about Harry at all. While Moll and his talented cast (especially the creepy and captivating López) 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 -- just as Marlow found his demon in Kurtz upriver. In Freudian terms, Michel is all uptight superego; Harry sheer, unfettered id. Seen another way, Michel's dutiful Dr. Jekyll toils in the lab, while Harry's Mr. Hyde wreaks havoc on the midnight streets.
Come to think of it, Professor Klump would grasp the whole thing in a millisecond. Including the business about how very, very badly Harry wants Michel to resume his writing career (shades of Kathy Bates), and how close Michel comes to turning into Jack Nicholson, erstwhile caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. 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. So much the better, onion soup purists be damned.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.