Published January 1, 2001
The Franco-German director Dominik Moll’s new film is called Harry, Un Ami Qui Vous Veut du Bien, which means, “Harry, a friend who only wants the best for you.” For its American release it has been given the slightly misleading English title of With A Friend Like Harry. . ., but in other English-speaking countries it has been known as Harry, He’s Here to Help. Both English titles suggest a rollicking comedy rather more than the French title does, and there is no doubt of the comic element in this exceedingly strange but most enjoyable little film. But its comedy is–how shall we say?–complicated to say the least. Compared by many overseas viewers to a Hitchcock product, it is rather, perhaps, what Hitchcock might have become if he had lived and worked on into the post-modern period.
Or, to put it another way, this is a Hitchcock movie that also sends up Hitchcock. The sinister stranger, eponymous Harry (Sergi López), who disrupts the life of an ordinary family is a very Hitchcockian character, and yet his strangeness somehow seems more natural. He is a self-invented character–in the way that people so often are self-consciously self-invented these days–and not a Hitchcock- or even a Moll-invented one. He delights in his own eccentricity, instead of taking it for granted, and yet it never seems merely put on for show. There are also touches of Beckett and touches of Pinter here and there, but what I like about the film is that everything is firmly anchored in the realistic conventions of the cinema. These help to accomplish here what film at its best does, which is to make extraordinary people seem ordinary and ordinary people extraordinary.
The obviously extraordinary person is Harry. It is impossible to praise Mr Lopez’s performance too highly. His entry into the life of a former schoolmate, Michel (Laurent Lucas), his wife, Claire (Mathilde Seigner) and their three small daughters, who represent the ordinary, comes with the cataclysmic force of an earthquake, even though the social niceties are so scrupulously observed that at first the family hardly notices the transformation he is effecting. In fact, the real focus of interest in the film is those same social niceties, the conventions of civilization which are stretched here to the breaking point but which nevertheless have a double purpose in the film: they make frightening and frankly incredible incident believable and they stand for all the ordinariness in the lives of its heroes that has to be broken down and swept away if anything extraordinary, good or bad, is to happen. In the end something does happen, but we aren’t quite sure whether it is good or bad.
The story begins on the French equivalent of an Interstate highway one hot August afternoon. Michel and Claire are driving south to their holiday cottage in the mountains. The car is hot, the two older girls are restive and complaining and the baby is sick. They stop at a rest area and, as Michel is splashing water on his face in the men’s room he is conscious of someone staring at him. It is Harry. Being stared at by a stranger in the men’s room is disconcerting, but Harry is smiling. He expects Michel to recognize him. Michel does not. To jog his memory, Harry reminds him of the time when, during a game of handball, the two of them collided and Harry lost a tooth. Michel still doesn’t remember. “I often don’t recognize people,” he explains apologetically.
Harry asks: “Do you still write?”
“What?” Soon we learn that Michel doesn’t recognize himself either, at least not as a writer. When, more to be polite than anything else, he acquiesces in Harry’s suggestion that they drive together to the cottage, Harry astounds him by reciting from memory a poem he, Michel, once wrote for the school magazine, “The Dagger in the Skin of the Night.” It is the only poem he ever wrote, and the kind of thing he would be embarrassed to acknowledge now, but for Harry’s enthusiasm. “I read it so often it sank in,” the latter explains and turns to his rather voluptuous girlfriend, Plum (Sophie Guillemin). “Plum likes it too,” he says.
“Dick often recites it to me,” she confirms, explaining that she likes to call Harry Dick. Harry/Dick goes on to recall Michel’s single prose effort, also published in the school magazine: an unfinished science fiction story called “The Flying Monkeys,” which he calls “one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read.” When he presses Michel by asking “Why did you stop writing?” the latter doesn’t know what to say.
“It was never a priority,” he ventures, as if he can’t think of any better reason. We assume that he has just grown out of it, as most adolescents dabbling in literary creation do. But Harry won’t allow us, or Michel, this easy explanation. As often in French films, artistic creation stands for a kind of human ideal, but in this case it becomes one against the will, almost, of the creator and only because of the fierce advocacy of a man who, as time goes on, seems more and more like one mentally deranged. Harry is rich, and he likes to solve problems, and he soon sets out to clear away all the obstacles to a return to his supposed literary vocation in Michel’s ordinary family life–including, eventually, his family itself. Even more strangely, Michel begins to find himself drawn into Harry’s delusion–if it is a delusion–that he is a writer.
One of the questions raised obliquely by this amusing yet disturbing film is that of how to make aesthetic judgments in the post-modern era, when Shakespeare and Batman comics are treated on terms of equality. What makes Michel’s putative literary oeuvre worth the trouble to him to produce it? The answer, so far as Michel is concerned, is just one passionate reader. Even a madman. Even a madman who’s no longer around to read his future output. “We have to overreact,” says Harry at one point. “It’s the only way to fulfilment.” I don’t think I agree with this way of thinking. Not at all. But in the context of this wonderful film it makes the kind of impression that “The Dagger in the Skin of the Night” made on Harry.