SECRET ADMIRERS usually pop up in movies as future girlfriends, admiring bosses, or wealthy benefactors. Who doesn't love to be so loved or favored? Out of the blue, someone introduces—or reintroduces—themselves, praises your talent, extols your potential, reawakens your inner conviction that you deserve better in life. So it is with Michel (Laurent Lucas), a poor schoolteacher with a wife and small kids to support. We meet him on the road to their ill-considered fixer-upper summer home (a financial sinkhole), sweltering in their economy car on the highway. It's a claustrophobic nightmare, making a hell of parenthood and family. At a rest stop, a stranger accosts Michel in the men's room (the location itself suggesting something illicit), claiming to be a friend from high school, 20 years ago.
WITH A FRIEND LIKE HARRY
directed by Dominik Moll with Laurent Lucas, Mathilde Seigner, and Sergi L� opens April 27 at Harvard Exit
"I wish I had your talent," says smooth, implacable Harry (An Affair of Love's Sergi L�, who won a French C鳡r award for this role), but Michel can't even remember the guy. Still, the expensive car and sex-bomb girlfriend indicate Harry's done well for himself, and soon passive Michel lets Harry insinuate his way into his life of quiet desperation. But how dissatisfied is Michel? Harry seems more disappointed than he does. He can recite Michel's puerile poetry by heart—particularly remembering his hilariously bad short story "Les Singes Volants" ("The Flying Monkeys")—which is unsettling even to the author. It's unsettling to us, too, but only Michel's sensible wife (Mathilde Seigner) can articulate her suspicions about Harry. There's nothing overtly malicious about him, just something vaguely creepy.
In this way, Harry is very much the son of Robert Walker's Bruno in the 1951 Hitchcock classic Strangers on a Train. Harry is no remake, but a reworking of the same themes of guilt and complicity. Like Farley Granger's seemingly innocent tennis pro in Strangers, not-so-nice Michel allows himself to be symbolically seduced in Harry, protesting a little but enjoying the benefits of Harry's increasingly worrisome affections.
THE DARK IRONY to Harry's eager helpfulness, of course, is that Michel actually does benefit—and without looking too closely at Harry's motives or doings. Is Michel willfully blind or just dim? Director Dominik Moll wisely never tips his hand to indicate that Michel's literary talent is actually worth nurturing. Harry could be all wrong about this wanna-be Stendhal. Moreover, Moll refuses to reduce his co-written script to a simple hero-villain dichotomy; Michel's a bit of a wimp, and Harry's a virile man of action, admirable in his peculiar way. "We're as free as the wind," he declares. "Excess is the only way to fulfillment."
Those sentiments deliberately echo Nietzsche, whose Superman places himself above the law, answerable only to his own conscience—which Harry may not possess. By contrast, Michel is all inhibition, the ego to Harry's id. Given Michel's passivity, we morbidly root for Harry, curious to see if his can-do spirit of problem-solving will work according to plan.
The movie's execution is no less fascinating and deliberate. Beginning with an ominous bird's eye-view credit sequence, Moll periodically pulls our perspective back to contrast the still serenity of the French countryside with certain disturbing events hidden in the foliage. What aren't we seeing? Harry's terrific use of off-camera sound also adds to the suspense. Michel's old country house is alive with buzzing, creaks, and groans—portending things to follow.
Even as it references classics that came before it, Harry also typifies a smart, promising new trend in suspense filmmaking. As with 1988's The Vanishing (not the 1993 American remake), Harry's evil remains inscrutable. Instead of the same tired psychological explanations—here's what the monster did and why—in our serial killer and slasher flicks, there aren't any pat explanations for deviancy. The self-satisfied little smirk Michel wears in his new luxury SUV at the end of Harry is the perfect note of punctuation to a film that remains, in the very best sense, a mystery.