[Screen It]

(2000) (Laurent Lucas, Sergi Lopez) (R)

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Subtitled Suspense/Thriller: A man and his family try to deal with a former classmate of his who's decided to ingratiate himself into their lives at any cost.
Michel Pepe (LAURENT LUCAS) is a 34-year-old teacher who's traveling with his wife, Claire (MATHILDE SEIGNER), and their three young daughters, Jeanne (VICTORIE DE KOSTER), Sarah (LAURIE CAMINITA) and Iris (LORENA CAMINITA), to see his parents (DOMINIQUE ROZAN & LILIANE ROVERE) in the French countryside.

It's a hot day, however, and the girls are cranky, thus resulting in Michel deciding to stop at a rest stop before turning back to the summer home they're slowly renovating. At the stop, Michel runs into Harry Ballestero (SERGI LOPEZ), a former classmate of his that he can't recall, but who seems to remember a great deal about him.

Although Harry's planning to take his girlfriend, Plum (SOPHIE GUILLEMIN), to Switzerland to see the Matterhorn, he decides to invite themselves back to Michel's place for a drink. Once there, and with it being late, Michel and Claire invite their new "friends" to spend the night, an occurrence that couldn't please Harry any more.

It seems that Harry, who inherited a great deal of money from his father, was always fond of Michel, even going to the point of memorizing the poems he wrote in school and of which Claire was not even aware. Michel and Claire find Harry's behavior a bit odd, especially when he offers to help them financially and then buys them a new truck to replace their broken down car.

Even so, they don't want to be rude and thus find Harry and Plum becoming increasingly ingrained in their daily lives. Yet, Harry's friendly ways and his need to fix any problems that Michel may have soon turns into a troubling fanaticism with dangerous results. As Harry decides to deal with Michel's family, including his brother, Eric (MICHEL FAU), and get the teacher to return to writing, the family discovers that there's a fine line between friendliness and obsession.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Most everyone has either been the unwilling recipient to an overbearing "friend," or at least known or witnessed someone who found themselves being smothered by someone who had latched onto them. In the movies, such stories, characters and their behavior are usually fodder for two distinct, but occasionally interrelated genres.

One is obviously the comedy, where the actions of the overbearing friend, along with that of the victim to deal with them and/or avoid that person, generate the laughs. Such was the case in "What About Bob?" where Bill Murray's character essentially smothered and drove the one played by Richard Dreyfuss crazy.

On the other side, such stories can fall into the creepy drama that often turns into a suspense thriller. One only need think of Glenn Close and Michael Douglas' characters in "Fatal Attraction," or the title ones in the independent film "Chuck & Buck" for a more recent example.

Director Dominik Moll's latest effort, "With A Friend Like Harry," definitely falls into the latter category. As written by Moll and screenwriter Gilles Marchand ("Human Resources"), the film's title comes from the old saying, "With a friend like (insert name here), who needs enemies?" while the mood and inspiration for the basic story clearly stem from the work of acclaimed suspense guru, Alfred Hitchcock.

Following in the master's footsteps - with a terrific assist from the old-fashioned suspense score by composer David Sinclair Whittaker (reportedly a veteran of scoring the old "Hammer Horror" films) that will evoke memories of various Hitchcock pictures - Moll ("Intimacy") wisely makes the viewer an active participant in building the film's suspense.

Although the basic story unfolds at a leisurely pace and one has a general sense of where it's headed, the director uses the viewer's imagination to stoke the ever-building suspense, and one's never quite certain exactly how things will ultimately unfold.

Of course, for many of today's viewers who've been weaned on loud jump scenes, horror chases, MTV inspired editing, and graphic death sequences, what's offered here will probably be seen as nothing more than a quaint exercise in trying to goose the viewer the old-fashioned way. Yet, that's a great deal of the "fun" the film has to offer, and it clearly does so in spades.

Moll certainly has an eye and ear for building suspense, and it's the film's cumulative effort of the many subtle and not so subtle moments that make it extremely entertaining to watch. Like a jigsaw puzzle, the individual pieces - once viewed one way - eventually begin to look differently and thus show the building, greater whole, resulting in an effect that's both chilling and thrilling.

The director also has the knack for creating credible characters that not only seem far more real than most of what Hollywood routinely pumps out, but also draw us further into the story. It certainly doesn't hurt that the quartet of actors and actresses in the lead roles deliver some terrific performances that are so good that you're likely to forget that they're acting the parts. While usually more subdued rather than flamboyant, and often working with a minimalist amount of material, the performers not only perfectly set up and then play off the building suspense, but also create engaging and sympathetic characters by making them human.

As the victim of his "friend's" obsession, Laurent Lucas ("The New Eve," "Pola X") is terrific and plays the harried father of three character to perfection. Mathilde Seigner ("Drying Cleaning," "Rosine") is ravishing without being showy as his frazzled wife, and creates a completely credible character.

Nevertheless, the film belongs to Sergi Lopez ("An Affair of Love," "Empty Days"), an actor who usually plays the "good guy," but does such a good job portraying a charming psychotic that he'll have no problem finding working on either side of the acting spectrum. I don't know if it's because I've seen Lopez in some other film, that he resembles somebody I know or have seen, or that he plays the part so perfectly, but the actor creates such an initially amiable and likable guy that anyone would drop their guard around him, if not for the obsessive behavior qualities that slowly begin to slip out.

It's a terrific, yet difficult to convincingly pull off performance, but Lopez manages to make it work to a tee. While far more limited in both development and dialogue, Sophie Guillemin ("L'Ennui," "On Fait Comme On a Dit") is also good as his voluptuous and sweet, but initially seemingly somewhat dimwitted girlfriend character.

Without giving anything else away, the fun of the film simply comes from the viewer putting the various pieces/clues together (just as the various characters do) all while the characters' lives and the obsessed individual begin to unravel.

If Hitchcock were alive today, he'd probably be happy to see someone carrying on the tradition of entertaining viewers with well-crafted, if old-fashioned thrillers that play off the restraint-based notion that sometimes less is more. Moll and company have certainly done just that, and while the film may be a bit slow for some, it's otherwise an effective piece of filmmaking. "With A Friend Like Harry" thus rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed April 20, 2001 / Posted April 27, 2001

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