The trouble with Harry

Intriguing French thriller builds mood with restraint

As titles go, With a Friend Like Harry doesn't sound much like a psychological thriller. It has a light, innocuous ring, and even its darkest implication — "With a friend like Harry, who needs an enemy?" — doesn't really curdle the blood. In England the French film is called Harry, He's Here to Help, which is more intriguing but a little awkward.

But the title's ambiguity aptly suits the tone of With a Friend Like Harry, which begins with such a poker-faced mood that you're never certain if its odd premise will turn comic, tragic or violent. The enigmatic Harry eventually reveals himself to be more like Robert Walker of Strangers on a Train than Bill Murray in What About Bob? Part of the compelling quality of With a Friend Like Harry is simply waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The first scenes gradually convey the paranoia of the French-Dutch suspense film The Vanishing, with each suggesting that European road trips are occasions of quiet dread. The unusual opening credits appear in a high aerial shot over the highway, with the letters leaving dark shadows on the road below.

Their three children squalling in their small, stifling car, young marrieds Michel (Laurent Lucas) and Claire (Mathilde Seigner) are en route to the country vacation house they can't afford. Lucas portrays Michel on the verge of lashing out or snapping under the weight of his domestic responsibilities, yet the family dynamic gets shaken by an unexpected source.

At the sink of a rest stop washroom, he encounters long-forgotten schoolmate Harry (Sergi Lopez), who not only remembers Michel from childhood, but reveals that he was an ardent admirer, even able to quote from memory poems that Michel barely recalls ever having written. We wonder if Harry's a con artist working a highly original ruse, but director Dominick Moll and co-writer Gilles Marchand's script is closer to the kind of story about a celebrity with an obsessive fan, only Michel's a seemingly average, undistinguished guy.

Independently wealthy and with the motto, "Solve every problem," Harry offers uneasy solutions as he ingratiates himself into Michel and Claire's life. Noting their car trouble, he simply buys them a Mitsubishi 4x4 and refuses to take it back when the young couple won't accept it. But when the pesky buttinsky notes the aggravations caused by Michel's bickering, elderly parents — who without warning renovate the country house's bathroom in a garish hot pink — Harry comes up with more drastic actions.

Spanish actor Sergi Lopez proves subtly effective as Harry because he rarely comes across as a conventionally twitchy movie nutcase. Instead, Lopez is as smooth and confident as a driver in a Mercedes commercial. Not a troubled loner, Harry enjoys a vigorous relationship with his dim, pillowy girlfriend Plum (Sophie Guillemin), although when he reveals his post-coital ritual involving an egg, you can't help but wonder if there's a homoerotic element at play.

Instead, Lucas plays the more "normal" Michel as the more visibly agitated, transforming from put-upon mope to aspiring artist. Harry urges him to return to an abandoned, juvenile novel about flying monkeys (which leads to a dream scene with the film's more eerily memorable image). Cloistering himself in the bathroom, Michel's efforts to write give the film aspects of The Shining and Barton Fink, and Harry begins to suggest that his wife and kids are keeping him from meeting his full potential.

Given its subject matter, With a Friend Like Harry has been inevitably compared to the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Moll constructs a few set pieces on winding roads against the deceptively beautiful French countryside, and despite some unsubtle soundtrack music, he's working in a more clinical style than Hitchcock's fluid intensity. Instead, Harry is better at focusing on telling details, like a ringing cell phone that provides a clue to criminality, or an eerily empty well that needs filling on the house's property.

Moll ultimately proves more intent on building a sinister atmosphere than offering cathartic pay-offs, and With a Friend Like Harry may be a little too restrained for its own good, leaving you unnerved but never terrified. Still, you may find food for thought in the weird, Faustian bargain Harry implicitly offers Michel: How would you react to a virtual stranger with total faith in your potential who's willing to do anything for you? Whatever your personal answer, With a Friend Like Harry shows that having a sociopath trying to help you is nearly as bad as having one trying to kill you.