Men in the Mirror
Most movies will be compared to others. Whether the comparison is overt, built into an advertising campaign (“A Taxi Driver for our age!”), or comes up in post-film conversations, it’s part of how people consume art and product—they connect what they’re doing now to something they’ve done before. Still, it takes nerve to reference Alfred Hitchcock, even in the form of homage and in the spirit of good creepy fun: fans of the Master of Suspense are devoted and demanding, and they’re everywhere.
Dominik Moll’s With a Friend Like Harry (Harry, un ami qui vous veut du bien) is a nervy, mostly successful reworking of Hitchcockian themes and devices, with particular attention to the allure of the sociopath. Harry (Sergi Lopez) is smooth as can be, scary-smooth. As soon as you see him, inquisitive, needy, and not a little pushy, you’re inclined to distrust him. And that first reaction puts you one tense step ahead of Michel (Laurent Lucas), hapless object of Harry’s desire to “help.” When they run into each other in a gas station men’s room, Harry introduces himself as Michel’s old high school acquaintance, but Michel has no memory of him. Harry’s vaguely but also visibly perturbed that he’s made so little impression on Michel. As you soon learn, Harry remembers Michel precisely, even obsessively, to the point that he can recite, with reverence, a painfully melodramatic poem Michel published in their school magazine, “The Dagger in the Skin of Night”—and yes, erotic innuendo runs rampant throughout the film, though Harry and Michel understand themselves to be absolutely—even virulently—straight.
Written by the German-born Moll and Gilles Marchand, the film borrows from sources that aren’t strictly Hitchcock, but related in some way. It uses plot elements from Patricia Highsmith and Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, as well as her Tom Ripley novels (like the one recently adapted as Anthony Minghella’s film, The Talented Mr. Ripley). Like the doppleganger characters in these stories, Harry insinuates himself into Michel’s life, at first seeming congenial, then becoming aggressive. (His strangeness is indicated in no small way by David Sinclair Whitaker’s score, which evokes Bernard Hermann’s work for Hitchcock, as well as the soundtrack, a dull-roar undertone that reminds you of David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti’s discomforting effects).
In the men’s room, Michel doesn’t—or can’t—see, as you do, how the mirror behind him and Harry doubles them, turning them into a foursome—images made up for one another as well as for themselves, alongside present-tense bodies, reflecting one another in their dark green shirts. His inability to see underlines the fact that you do see—as any Hitchcock fan is all too aware, the fun comes in knowing more than your point-of-reference character, thus, you feel nervous for him. At this point, it’s hard to tell what Michel needs to know but doesn’t, but Harry’s creepiness is hard to miss.
The other pertinent fact here is that Michel doesn’t remember Harry, not a bit (you find out later that Michel’s dentist father remembers fixing Harry’s teeth, to italicize Michel’s personal “issue”). This plot detail underlines the film’s interest in the connections between memory and identity, the ways that actual events are transformed when remembered, and the ways that self-understanding is shaped not so much by what happens, but by what you remember and repress. Michel has repressed Harry and Harry has obsessed over Michel—something terrible will result from this lack of fit.
While this interest in memory as a means to character is manifest in the film’s own allusions to Hitchcock (as collective memory), it is also the ground for the narrative, part mystery, part venomous comedy. Harry is obviously a mystery, appearing bascially out of nowhere and proceeding to scheme and scam in his own unnervingly placid way, but Michel is also a mystery, especially to himself. His desires and ambitions have long since been overrun by his go-nowhere life. As the repeated shots of him sweating in his rickety family car attest, he’s stuck, playing distracted husband to Claire (Mathilde Seigner), pragmatic father to three little girls (Laurie Caminata, Lorena Caminata, Victoire de Koster), and fidgety son to his ceaselessly kvetching parents (Dominique Rozan and Liliane Rovere). But he also realizes that teaching French to Japanese businessmen is not exactly the career he always wanted, and if he stopped to think about it, he’d see that he’s bored. His personal underdevelopment has a material corollary in a country house that he and Claire bought several years ago and are still “fixing up.” As Claire describes it, they’re not happy or unhappy, just exhausted all the time… like many parents of small children.
Harry embodies alternatives: independence and wealth. He has all that Michel does not, a new Mercedes, a complacently sexy girlfriend named Plum (Sophie Guillemin), and a formidable self-assurance. Michel is both drawn to and repulsed by Harry, who invites himself into Michel’s family vacation plans, following him home and showing off his uncanny memory of Michel’s adolescent writings, including a science fiction story called “The Flying Monkeys.” Given the gooniness of this story (demonstrated in fragmented images from Michel’s nightmares) Claire and Michel are initially skeptical of his taste in literature and fanatical devotion to Michel, but Harry persists, worming his way into every domestic argument, decision, and space: he shows up in Michel’s kitchen late at night, eating raw eggs to “reinvigorate” after orgasm; advises Michel on how to “handle” his meddlesome parents; and with increasing urgency, encourages Michel to take up writing again.
Michel and Claire’s responses to Harry range from awe to distrust to disgust; Plum, on the other hand, appears to worship him, in much the same way he worships himself. Her hand caressing the back of his meaty neck as he drives, she says admiringly that his motto is “Solve every problem.” He tends to buy solutions: “Money is no object,” Harry boasts, then buys Michel a brand new SUV, despite the latter’s protestations that the car is “vulgar.” At once trivial for Harry, who apparently has too much money, and excessive, a sign that Michel owes him, or he owns Michel, in some skin-crawly way.
There are plenty of anxieties to go around here, most of them concerning what it means to be—or at least behave like—a man. Harry and Michel are both contending with self-doubts and frustrations, despite their necessary and mostly banal masculine fronting. And this may be With a Friend Like Harry‘s most noteworthy observation—the sheer blandness of Harry’s villainy. Lacking imagination, he admires Michel’s bad writing, loses patience over the slightest social infractions, and commits completely stupid acts of violence. He’s so concerned with acting like a man, he’s unable to think his way past the performance. And in that way, he’s much like the apparently “normal” Michel.
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