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When 'Harry' Met Hitchcock

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2001

   


    'With a Friend Like Harry' Sergi Lopez in "With a Friend Like Harry." (Miramax Zoe)
Up until now, Spanish actor Sergi Lopez has made a career of playing the kind of mild and genial fellow you wouldn't mind having a beer or leaving the kids with. Until, that is, his performance in "With a Friend Like Harry . . .," a psychological thriller from Dominik Moll, a German-born, French-based filmmaker whose disturbingly wry vision recently garnered both the director and the lead actor Cesars (the French version of the Oscar).

It's not a flashy part, but Lopez's Harry is a role that practically screams – no, make that whispers – "No more Mr. Nice Guy."

Don't get me wrong: As the title character, Lopez still has the winning smile, the perfect posture and the firm but never forceful handshake of a regular Joe. He also happens to be a bit of a walking nut-bar. But not so you'd notice. He's the psycho next door.

This is how it begins: with Harry running into old high-school classmate Michel (Laurent Lucas) in the washroom of a highway rest stop, a washroom where Michel has fled to escape the whining of his three young daughters and the un-air-conditioned hell of the rundown car he and his wife, Claire (Mathilde Seigner), are vacationing in. With his pressed dress shirt and every hair in place, Harry is the antithesis of Michel's harried, sweat-stained dad.

Not only does Harry remember everything about Michel – who barely recognizes his childhood pal despite having supposedly knocked out one of Harry's teeth in a youthful soccer game – but before you know it, Harry and his sweet-but-dumb girlfriend (Sophie Guillemin) have changed their own vacation plans to chauffeur Claire and the three cranky kids to their destination in Harry's expensive, climate-controlled sedan.

To repay Harry's gallantry, Michel invites his glib savior to spend the night in the spare bedroom of the dilapidated house he's fixing up in the country. Over late-night drinks that evening, Harry stuns the gathering with his ability to recite from memory – in orotund tones normally reserved for readings of Rimbaud or Baudelaire – a pretentious poem written by a teenage Michel for the high-school literary magazine. (Cue "Twilight Zone" theme as Michel wonders whether to be flattered or creeped out by Harry's little stalker demo. The answer? A little of both.)

With its quasi-sexual title (the poem is called something like "The Dagger in the Skin of Night"), Michel's writing is a silly, adolescent exercise – to all ears but Harry's, who of course views it as a work of unparalleled artistic genius and who is shocked to discover that Michel makes his living as a language teacher and not as a famous author.

Naturally, he sets about making that situation right, too, although his unorthodox prescription involves (um, how shall I put this?) the "removal" of certain undesirable "elements" from Michel's life that Harry feels may be holding his friend back.

It's not for nothing that "Harry" has been compared to Hitchcock's great "Strangers on a Train," but Moll's film is also very, very funny, in that morbid sort of way that makes you laugh even as you shudder with horror. This, of course, is entirely due to Lopez, an actor whose facility at playing likable has never come in more handy. Even as his behavior gets more and more bizarre and as he starts insinuating himself deeper into Michel's (misguided) trust, you never really question why Michel doesn't just cut him loose. He's too polite, too generous, too well-meaning a friend to dump.

"Harry" plays like a thriller, even though the only real mystery is never what's happening but why. But it also can be seen as a parable of the search for balance between creativity and security. As destructive as Moll shows Harry's impulsiveness to be, the writer-director also wants to make us realize that without Harry, Michel might never overcome his inertia.

Harry clearly goes too far, but without someone like him to push us over the line, Moll seems to say, we might never discover just how far is far enough.

With a Friend Like Harry . . . (R, 117 minutes) – Contains murder, partial nudity, sexual subject matter and obscenity. In French and Spanish with subtitles.

 

Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company


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