Harry, He’s Here To Help (Harry, un ami qui vous veut du bien)

France (2000) Dir. Dominik Moll

When we can’t rely on our families we turn to our friends instead (those of you that actually have friends) but what if they are even less help? What if they serve to make your problems even bigger than they were before? French director Dominik Moll takes great delight in exploring this notion in the darkest manner possible.

It’s a stifling hot day and Michel (Laurent Lucas) is finding his patience pushed to the limit, stuck in a sweltering car with his wife Claire (Mathilde Seigner) and their three noisy daughters, Jeanne (Victoire de Koster), Sarah (Laurie Caminita) and Iris (Lorena Caminita). Stopping for a break, Michel takes refuge in the men’s room, only to be greeted by an old school friend he barely remembers, Harry (Sergi Lopez).

Harry inveigles an invite to Michel’s holiday home, bringing his younger girlfriend Plum (Sophie Guillemin) along too. While the mood is calm and congenial Harry surprises everyone with his encyclopaedic knowledge of Michel’s writing for the school magazine that he himself had forgotten. Gradually Harry becomes a fixture in Michel’s life with terrible consequences for those around him.

The revised title for the American release of this French thriller is With Friends Like Harry… which rather annoyingly gives prospective viewers a rough idea of what they can expect to see here. The original French title translates to the tongue-in-cheek Harry, A Friend Who Wishes You Well, in tune with the black comedy categorisation many have given this film.

Perhaps the humour is too subtle for me but this felt much more like a straight up psychological thriller than a black comedy, although there is an argument to be made that Harry is a comical figure with his gormless, permanent Andy Kaufman-esque smile which we know is hiding a more sinister persona. Certainly when things start to get a little suspect and the body count gathers momentum it is no laughing matter.

An often-used description attached to this film is “Hitchcockian” which is huge praise indeed if a little overzealous. Moll does craft some marvellously tense and gripping moments of dread and suspense but lacks the knowing panache Hitch is able to infuse into the mood. Other comparisons are found in such visual references as the perilous driving scenes along the country roads Hitch had a fondness for.

There is no McGuffin to speak of but Moll’s script does set up teases of future perils for the audience to remember later on when they play an important part in the proceedings. Obviously the main conceit is Harry himself and what makes him tick, which isn’t revealed but maybe we are better off not knowing. It was never made explicit if Harry being in the same motorway services restroom as Michel was the coincidence it appears to be, yet nothing supports this either.

There isn’t any evidence either that Harry is a stalker or if Michel somehow encouraged this behaviour. Only when Harry recites a poem Michel himself forgot he wrote as a teen verbatim, which everyone hated except Harry, do alarm bells start ringing. Also recalling an unfinished novel about flying monkeys, Harry wonders why Michel doesn’t write anymore, tacitly suggesting that he has too many distractions in life.

Harry’s motto of “There are no problems, just solutions” is demonstrated by summarily buying Michel a new car when his packs up, a generous gift Michel and Claire reluctantly accept. But if someone looks to be preventing Michel from writing again, even if it happens to be Michel’s parents or brother, then Harry has a solution for that problem too – one that doesn’t involve money.  

What makes Harry such a disarming character is that Moll cleverly has him as the affluent one, living off his family’s fortunes, rather than being the standard trope of a needy loner. Harry’s wealth might explain the younger and buxom Plum’s obedience and devotion to him (aside from his raw egg related sexual prowess), although Moll keeps her involvement of Harry’s plans as ambiguous as possible.

Another trope change up is that of Michel and Claire; he is the easily influenced one – not necessarily a gullible fool but leave himself wide open – while she is the cynical one who harbours an early distrust of Harry. With pressure coming from all angles Michel is one degree away from bursting a blood vessel but who is going to be the proverbial straw to break this camel’s back?

Rife with many moments of quiet unease and nail biting tension it is only the final act where Moll lets us down by not explaining in detail what Harry’s intentions were, not necessarily a spoon-fed explanation but a sufficient rationale to put his actions into perspective would have been nice. However, I am sure smarter viewers have divined this for themselves or simply found Harry’s enigmatic personality to be reason enough.

In the title role, Sergi Lopez is a menacing presence without needing to resort to any overt embellishments to create a psychopathic aura, comfortably assuming the role of the devil in Michel’s ear. Laurent Lucas compliments Lopez by bouncing off him like the straight man in a comedy duo, a similar dynamic found with Mathilde Seigner’s Claire, Michel’s only real hope of stability. Sophie Guillemin has less to do as Plum but exudes enough innocence to evoke sympathy when required.

Moll does a fabulous job of capturing the appropriate mood and atmosphere aesthetically and through the actors’ body language and is equally successful in making this permeate through the screen so the audience feels the prickly summer heat, the retina burning pink bathroom and the impending doom of Harry’s victims. The pace never drags and the horrific moments are spaced out for maximum shock effect.  

Harry, He’s Here To Help does the impossible in making an innocuous name a symbol of unease and dread, and after watching this keenly constructed and itchy thriller, we’ll never trust anyone called Harry again.