Wednesday, May 2, 2001

Chilled nerves

This plate of Hitchcock à la française leaves an aftertaste of dread.

Posted By on Wed, May 2, 2001 at 12:00 AM

Lopez (l) and Guillemin in Harry.
  • Lopez (l) and Guillemin in Harry.

How do you create suspense? In interviews, Alfred Hitchcock described this simple scenario. First, film a scene of a family contentedly eating dinner together. Then show the audience what the family can’t see: a ticking bomb under the table. One thing which made Hitchcock such a great director was the way he manipulated perception, and the downfall of many of his characters was their peculiar kind of blindness: They could only see what they wanted to see. This myopia is also vital to writer-director Dominik Moll (Intimacy) in his beautifully nuanced summer chiller, With a Friend Like Harry.

Parisian teacher Michel (Laurent Lucas) cannot fathom the wide world outside his cramped, hot car stuffed with unhappy women — his increasingly testy wife, Claire (Mathilde Seigner), and their three travel-weary young daughters. Not so for the cool, collected Harry (Sergi Lopez), who’s traversing the same French highways in a German comfortmobile with his latest squeeze, the prime Plum (Sophie Guillemin).

After a chance encounter, the paths of these two couples converge, and at Michel and Claire’s country house in Cantal, a casual dinner conversation becomes increasingly strained as Harry begins to describe the literary ambitions of his school chum. He recites by heart a poem Michel composed 20 years before and the intensity of his recollection makes one thing clear to the audience: Harry is the ticking bomb.

What makes With a Friend Like Harry so shockingly good is the way Moll lets events unfold organically, without placing undo emphasis on any one scene or action. Even Harry’s recitation is treated as just one more odd occurrence in Michel’s life. Unable to take a strong stand, he’s at the mercy of demanding forces, such as his affluent parents, who have a garish, profusely pink bathroom installed in the rustic house he’s gradually renovating. So Michel accepts Harry’s kindnesses, which are laced with as much manipulative malice as those rose tiles.

Lopez (An Affair of Love) beautifully underplays Harry, who sees himself not as a villain, but a good-hearted, decisive man of action whose only fault is occasionally overstepping his bounds. Likewise, Laurent Lucas doesn’t portray Michel as a conventional hero. When the camera pulls in tight on his impassive face, his green eyes look like a still, deep well. Harry drops pebble after pebble into this placid water, until the ripples turn into waves which could drown them both.

Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W. of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.

Read Serena Donadoni's exclusive interview with With A Friend Like Harry director Dominik Moll in this week's Reckless Eyeballing.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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