With a Friend Like Harry has lined itself up for no less than nine nominations for France’s Cesar Awards and is a contender for Britain’s BAFTA award for Best Foreign film. The film and writer-director Dominik Moll are being likened to Hitchcock. The advertising heralds it as “the thriller that electrified Europe.” But is With a Friend Like Harry really that good? Yes. In fact, Moll is done something of a disservice by being likened to Hitchcock: The director has a personality very much his own. But the film’s storyline and its methodical approach are certainly Hitchcockian. Michel (Lauret Lucas) and his wife, Claire (Mathilde Seigner), are traveling to their country home with their three children when they make a rest stop and Michel finds himself accosted by old schoolmate Harry (Sergi Lopez) in the men’s room. It’s an awkward encounter, in part because the location is suggestive of a pick-up (psychologically, it is one), but more because Michel has no memory of his old friend. Harry, on the other hand, has an obsessive interest in Michel, whom he idolized for his writing gifts in school — gifts Michel has all but forgotten in the intervening years. Soon Harry and his girlfriend, Plum (Sophie Guillemin), have attached themselves to the other couple. Harry prides himself on being a “problem solver” and, being wealthy, has a tendency to solve his friend’s difficulties with money (buying him a car, etc.) Michel is none too comfortable with this, since, among other things, it’s an extension of the way his parents treat him — implicitly commenting on his failure by stepping in. Yet Michel is so used to being controlled that he allows Harry to insinuate himself ever further into the fabric of his life. As he does so, the extent to which Harry will go to “solve” a problem becomes alarmingly clear. The plot is a strong one, brimming with subtext, but the success of Moll’s film lies in his subtle creation of menace beneath the surface of the ordinary. We sense that there’s something not quite right about Harry long before we know how unconnected to reality he is. It’s in the details: his obsessive memories, the strangely evocative use of a 1927 recording of Dolores Del Rio singing “Ramona” on the soundtrack (at first associated with Harry, but seemingly taken on by Michel), his inability to grasp that his “help” is out of proportion to the needs (and desires) of his annexed friend, etc. Moll uses these devices to build a remarkable sense of dread — and when the dreaded “something” does happen, the film becomes even more disconcerting because it cleverly makes many of Harry’s actions seem, if not reasonable, then at least understandable. It is this aspect of With a Friend Like Harry that gives the film a remarkable moral gravity. It’s just too easy — at least for a time — to succumb to the strange logic of Harry’s machinations. Both Michel and the viewer are skillfully drawn into this, and both are made to wrestle with the implications right up to the final, unsettling moments, resulting in a superior thriller with more on its mind than thrills. With a Friend Like Harry more than deserves the accolades it has received and makes it clear why Variety pegged Moll as a contender in its “Directors to Watch 2001″ special edition.
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