Now that Claude Chabrol is getting on in years, some of us have been concerned that the marvelously Gallic brand of Hitchcockian thriller he has periodically brought us, often with a nifty shot of class warfare as part of the mix (the splendidly chilly 1995 “La Ceremonie” is the most recent example) might become an endangered cinematic species. Not to worry: Dominik Moll shows with this unsettling, mordantly humorous piece that he can assume the older filmmaker’s mantle quite adroitly. Even the title calls to mind Hitchcock’s 1955 black comedy, “The Trouble With Harry,” and the Harry on display here does indeed prove a troublesome sort. This is only the writer-director’s second film–the first was 1993’s “Intimacy,” which I haven’t seen but would now very much like to. (He was also the assistant director of last year’s splendid “Human Resources,” which was part of the invaluable Shooting Gallery Independent Film Series.) But it’s an assured and sophisticated piece of work which offers a generous assortment of chills and laughs.
The picture opens not on the title character, but on Michel (Laurent Lucas), an exhausted-looking young man who’s driving with his family, wife Claire (Mathilde Seigner) and three young daughters, to the rural vacation farm they’ve bought near his well-to-do parents and are trying to fix up. At a rest stop Michel bumps into a rather peculiar old schoolmate, Harry (Sergi Lopez, one of the stars of the recent “An Affair of Love”), a slick, wealthy bon vivant who’s come into a large inheritance and is spending it travelling with his buxom girlfriend Plum (Sophie Guillemin). (The scene in which they’re reintroduced is a perfectly observed little gem.) Harry immediately attaches himself to Michel’s family, and before long all seven people are ensconced at the farm.
It soon becomes apparent, however, that Harry, while inordinately free with cash and often accommodating, is also a homicidal type who resolves what he perceives as inconveniences, especially of a family variety, in the most expedient way. Among the gallery of Hitchcock’s colorful villains he most closely resembles Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie from “Shadow of a Doubt” (1941), the “Merry Widow” murderer who obsessively dispatches women he perceives as useless drones, and Robert Walker’s Bruno Antony from “Strangers on a Train” (1951), who wants to switch murders with a chance acquaintance so he can rid himself of his hated father. Bruno is actually the closer fit, since it’s implied that Harry might well have gotten rid of his own dad to secure his inheritance–having “perfected” his own life, he’s now out to do that same for Michel’s. Moreover, Harry insinuates himself so snugly with Michel that, by encouraging the married man to resume his old avocation as a writer (on a scifi story quite appropriately about a fellow who trains some mechanized monkeys to do dirty deeds for him), he cajoles him, almost imperceptibly, into a kind of complicity in the plans he has for Michel’s parents, wife and kids, just as Antony does with Guy Haines.
The plausibility of the motivations isn’t necessarily the strong point in a narrative like this, which has a lot more in common with the character-driven stories of Patricia Highsmith (author of “Strangers on a Train,” as it happens) than with more conventional whodunnits. But Moll and his lead actors manage to lend a crispness and precision to the figures of Harry and Michel that make them engrossing, if a trifle superficial. Lopez endows the former with a mixture of ostensibly easygoing charm and suppressed rage that makes him all the more frightening, while Lucas paints a cunning portrait of a put-upon guy with lots of regrets. (The early scenes, which show him being tormented in the car by his demanding daughters, are perfectly-gauged images of the stesses of parenthood.) Seigner and Guillemin are fine, too, although they’re playing basically one-dimensional characters. The actors are helped enormously by the unexaggeratedly stylish cinematography of Matthieu Poirot-Delpech, the deliberate but not sluggish pace built by editor Yannick Kergoat, and a moody score by David Sinclair Whitaker that has some Herrmannesque touches but is played by a chamber ensemble, rather than the full orchestra that Hitchcock’s greatest composer preferred.
“With a Friend Like Harry” doesn’t break new ground, but it’s a beautifully crafted example of a kind of film one doesn’t get to see often enough nowadays–a truly seductive thriller that wins you over with slyness and suspense and proves clever rather than cheaply imitative or snidely referential. Quintessentially French in its dark Chabrolesque tone, it’s a deliciously nasty treat, and makes one hungry for more from Moll.