Unless you've only recently graduated, chances are you won't remember every one of your high school classmates. If someone stopped you on the street and started talking to you about the good old days, how would react? That's the jumping off point for the tidy thriller With a Friend Like Harry... Deservedly called "Hitchcockian," (the title calls to mind the master's The Trouble With Harry and the plot is a variation on Strangers on a Train), the film is anchored by a change of pace turn by Catalan actor Sergi López, who is perhaps best-known to art-house patrons for his work in the films such as Western and Une Affair Pornographique (An Affair of Love). Generally cast as gentle, good men, López as Harry appears to be once again mining the same territory, but gradually he reveals the darker undercurrent in this very troubled man.
Director Dominik Moll begins the film with a letter-perfect view of what can only be called hell. On a hot summer afternoon, Michel (Laurent Lucas of POLA X) and his attractive wife Claire (Mathilde Segnier of Venus Beauty Institute) are trapped in their sedan (without air conditioning) with their three screaming daughters. The first few moments capture and distill Michel's life of struggle as he tries to please the women in his life. When they make a stop at a roadside rest area, Michel meets Harry in the men's room. It's an awkward moment as the former clearly doesn't recall the latter. There's also a question of class difference: Michel is a relatively impoverished schoolteacher; Harry appears to be independently wealthy. As a gesture, Michel invites Harry and his companion, the blowzy Plum (Sophie Guillemin), to their vacation home, knowing full well it's in the opposite direction they are heading. When Harry accepts the invitation, Michel is trapped. Harry also has an air-conditioned car and offers a ride to Claire and the youngsters, which is at first declined. But Harry's insinuating charm and oddball manner work to his advantage. Unfortunately, he becomes the house guest that doesn't seem to want to leave.
With a Friend Like Harry... doesn't offer easy solutions or pat answers. Harry's motives are never clearly spelled out. (There is an admittedly homoerotic undercurrent but it is never developed.) That he can recite schoolboy poetry that Michel wrote and seemingly obsesses over another of Michel's writings (a science-fiction short story) borders on the genuinely creepy. Gradually, Harry gets Michel to open up about all the underlying resentment that the teacher keeps bottled up. (Things like his meddlesome parents whose latest misstep is the installation of a hot pink bathroom in the rustic vacation home.) It's possible to read the film as Harry being a physicalization of Michel's id (with Plum a projection of Claire's suppressed ego), but it is also possible to be a bit more literal. That Harry is a master of self-restraint, yet completely out of control; a seductive presence as well as a destructive one. When he one by one removes the roadblocks to what he perceives as the path to Michel's happiness, he does so methodically, leading to the inevitable confrontation.
The film rests squarely on the shoulders of its leading men, and neither disappoints. López, who has picked up several awards, delivers a nicely calibrated turn, capturing the attractive and enticing aspects of the character as well as delineating his underlying menace. Since Harry is somewhat of a blank, the actor must fill in what's missing and López accomplishes this with ease. Lucas is just as praiseworthy, although because he has the more passive role, his work tends to be overlooked. Both women also manage to create fully-rounded characters.
Dominik Moll (who also co-wrote the script with Gilles Marchand) demonstrates as sure hand in his direction. He succeeds at setting the tone of unease and discomfort from the film's opening and following through on it, infusing ordinary situations with tension and then ratcheting up the pressure. There are minor quibbles, some of the subplots aren't as intriguing as the main story, but mostly, the film climaxes in a manner that is all too predictable. While it is not a major fault, it does mar this otherwise delicious black comedy.
Rating: B MPAA Rating: R for language, some violence and a scene of nudity