Filled with a tantalizing air of suspense, With a Friend Like Harry is an unusual yet well-balanced mix of dark comedy, French thriller, and surreal drama. As I was watching the film, I found myself groping for its message at each turn of the plot. Its ultimate effect is comparable to Claude Chabrol's La Cérémonie, with all its violence and commentary on class delineation.
In With a Friend Like Harry, two former schoolmates accidentally meet in a roadside bathroom. Michel (Laurent Lucas) is on vacation with his wife Claire (Mathilde Seigner) and their three little daughters. He is harried and haggard, far from enjoying this so-called vacation: an endless ride with whining and screaming kids in an un-air conditioned car. Harry (Sergi López) is everything Michel is not: Sleek and self-contained, he doesn't seem to be burdened by anything except good memories and a load of money. Within minutes, Harry invites himself and his girlfriend, a corpulent, springy bun named Plum (Sophie Guillemin), to Michel's house -- to reminisce about the good old school days Michel himself can barely remember.
The success of Harry is held in its odd combination of very real, down-to-earth elements combined with surreal devices, creating suspense, disbelief, and intrigue. The film plays skillfully with a common knowledge that there is always a potential danger in bringing an intruder into the family, no matter how stable this family is. At the table, Harry recites Michel's adolescent school poem with the unattractive title The Dagger in the Skin of Plight, as well as an excerpt from a sci-fi novel called Flying Monkeys. Leading a life of constant gratification, Harry is convinced that all Michel's problems -- lack of money and the desire to please other people -- have obscured Michel's path toward fulfillment as a writer. Quick and decisive, Harry is a man of action, and his solutions are very concrete.
It is nearly impossible to fathom the nature of Harry's obsession with Michel's early poem, which he remembers by heart. But, as the film progresses, it becomes obvious that Harry expresses his obsession through crime. By the film's end, he is comparable to Ripley from Rene Clement's Purple Noon (and the American The Talented Mr. Ripley), a sociopath with an insidious mind learning that he could get away with just about anything. However, Harry is a hedonist and a misanthrope, but his enigma is never as refined as Ripley's is. The film even treats him with a slight contempt: There is always something distasteful in Harry's brisk arrogant walk, in his narrow unexpressive eyes.
The music, with sinister ominous overtones, often diverts our attention by accentuating superfluous elements, such as the eggs Harry likes to eat after having an orgasm or the vulgar pink wall pattern in the bathroom of Michel's house. It creates a creepy and eerie effect, but, after a while, these devices become as predictable as Harry's long list of solutions. The movie is not a weighty one, yet there is something in its tension and the way it feeds you its story that attracts you to it. The film seduces you into thinking that, at certain moments, you know where it's headed, and then you realize that you don't.
Acting is crucial to this film's success, and it is impeccable. Michel and Claire never get hysterical or grotesquely quarrelsome during their daily rituals. The core of their disorganized and turbulent family unit is established early in the film, and it's clear that no matter what sacrifices Michel has had to make for his girls, he loves them without regret or resentment. There is an interesting comment, however, in the closing sequence of the film. Just like at the beginning of the film, Michel drives his family in the car, only now the car is a present from the magnanimous Harry. In a splendid 4x4 sport utility vehicle, with air-conditioning full blast, the kids are content; no more screaming, howling, or demands. Michel smiles -- whatever price he has had to pay for getting rid of Harry was well worth it. Does the film suggest we all have a little of Harry in us? I think it does. Whether it is a point worth making is another question altogether.
Aka Harry, un ami qui vous veut du bien. DVD features subtitled and dubbed versions.
Harry gets hairy.