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[whitespace] 'With a Friend Like Harry'
Friend or Fiend? Sergi López seems like a good guy, for a while, in 'With a Friend Like Harry.'

Mordant Is Iess

'With a Friend Like Harry' is steeped in malice toward all

By Richard von Busack

A BEGINNING SCREENWRITING MOTTO goes, "Make the characters sympathetic." This advice, however, ignores a sliver of films that work well because people love to see unsympathetic characters menaced. With a Friend Like Harry begins mordantly on a highway during the August vacation season in France. We see a carload of misery: Michel (Laurent Lucas), his wife, Claire (Mathilde Seigner), and their three eminently drownable daughters. The eldest is busy testing the rule that it's never OK to hit a child; the middle girl gives her sister someone to throw rocks at; and the littlest is a howling crybaby. The family is driving during a heat wave, but for some reason the windows are rolled up--maybe it's to prevent Michel from hurling himself out of one.

At a gas station rest room, where Michel is bathing his aching head in the sink, a figure from his past turns up. After much, much memory prodding, it turns out that Harry (Sergi López) and Michel were classmates in high school. Harry, delighted at the coincidental meeting, presses a dinner out of the circumstances. Shortly, he and his fiancée are installed as guests in Michel and Claire's summer home. It's Harry's fancy that Michel is a great, though blocked, writer. Never has Harry been able to get out of his mind one poem that his host wrote for the school literary magazine, a nugget of bad Verlaine called "The Dagger in the Skin of Night."

Bearing praise and enormous quantities of presents, Harry starts to pit the members of the family against each other. Michel, his head turned by the flattery, is also in a constant state of yearning, thanks to Harry's maddeningly provocative fiancée. She is played by Sophie Guillemin and is called "Plum," a vastly breasted, placid blonde with baby-blue eyes; the kids make no secret of preferring her to their cranky, wilted mom.

With a Friend Like Harry is marinated in Polanskian bile--too bad that director Dominik Moll turns the film into a kind of routine thriller at the end, with body-disposal sequences. Composer David Whitaker underscores the change of focus by stroking some Bernard Herrmann-style strings (homages to Polanski are rarer than homages to Hitchcock). The problem is that we suspicious Americans forecast trouble from the beginning, and thus the shocks don't jolt as well as they may have overseas--different voltage in Europe, I guess. What recommends With a Friend Like Harry is the undiluted malice of this view of family life. Guillemin's buxom dim bulb, described with some justice as "a pea-brained cow," has to be seen to be believed. Finally, López's unnervingly friendly Harry is a credit to Robert Walker's Bruno in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train as a portrait of persistently charming psychopathy. He proves that sympathy can have a fanatic, dangerous side.

With a Friend Like Harry (R; 117 min.), directed by Dominik Moll, written by Gilles Marchand and Moll, photographed by Matthieu Poirot-Delpech and starring Laurent Lucas, Sergi López and Mathilde Seigner opens Friday at Camera One in San Jose.

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From the May 10-16, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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