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On a stifling summer afternoon, a weary 30-ish French couple pull into a highway rest stop, where they encounter a madman who will alter the course of their lives. The scene should ring bells for movie buffs familiar with The Vanishing, George Sluizer’s unnerving 1988 French-Dutch chiller. (The original version, not the botched 1993 Hollywood remake of the same title, also directed by Sluizer.) Encumber the exhausted pair with three cranky young daughters and you have the opening sequence of Dominik Moll’s thriller With a Friend Like Harry….

In the men’s room, Michel (Laurent Lucas), who supports his family by teaching French to Japanese businessmen in Paris, bumps into Harry (Sergi López), who claims to be a former classmate. Michel can’t recall him, but Harry’s memory of Michel is remarkably vivid. He even recites a poem that Michel contributed to a literary journal: “The Dagger in the Skin of Night.” Dogged by the persistent Harry, Michel introduces him to his wife, Claire (Mathilde Seigner), and their three girls. Independently wealthy since the death of his father, Harry, who is vacationing with his girlfriend, Plum (Sophie Guillemin), inveigles an invitation to the ancient summer home that Michel is slowly renovating.

At this point, Moll and co-writer Gilles Marchand launch into a Hitchcockian pastiche, replicating Shadow of a Doubt’s introduction of a deceptively sympathetic outsider into the bosom of a close-knit family and Strangers on a Train’s ploy of having a genial psycho commit crimes to benefit a man whom he barely knows. (Even the name of López’s character—Harry Balestrero—contains a double allusion to Hitchcock movies: The Trouble With Harry, of course, and The Wrong Man, whose protagonist is Manny Balestrero.) Once in residence, Harry charms his hosts with his high spirits, and the warmhearted Plum ingratiates herself with the children. On impulse, Harry buys Michel a bright-red 4-by-4 to replace the family’s run-down, un-air-conditioned car—a gesture that strikes Claire as excessively generous. Harry shrugs off her protests, reciting his mantra: “Excess is the only way to fulfillment.”

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Recalling that, as a student, Michel published the first chapter of a never-completed novel about flying gibbons, Harry encourages his host to jump-start his stalled literary career. Observing that people-pleasing Michel is overburdened by obligations to his parents, wife, and children, Harry takes it upon himself to alleviate some of those pressures. Several corpses later, Michel realizes what Claire has already suspected: Their home has been invaded by a lunatic.

Moll presents this sinister tale in a crisp, summery manner, starting with soaring widescreen helicopter shots of his protagonists’ automobiles accompanied by composer David Whitaker’s solo piano sonatina. He sprinkles the film with odd, disturbing details: the scratchy ’20s Dolores del Rio recording of “Ramona” that Harry plays in his car; the ghastly fuchsia-tiled bathroom that Michel’s parents install, as a surprise, in the summer home; Michel’s dream of flying gibbons; the raw eggs that Harry consumes after having sex with Plum,

photographed to mirror her voluptuous cleavage.

Moll’s expressive actors complement his arresting images. Lucas, with his crooked teeth, fatigued eyes, and locks of damp hair stuck to his forehead, convincingly projects the beleaguered state of a decent, overtaxed man in need of some assistance. Seigner, a striking actress with tanned skin and braided honey-toned hair, is forceful as Claire, supportive but outspoken, with a sarcastic edge. As sweetly, lusciously globular as her character’s name, Guillemin is touchingly vulnerable, a guileless foil for her lover’s psychological complexity. But the plum role goes to López, who played the courtly sex-ad correspondent in last year’s An Affair of Love. Physically reminiscent of Robin Williams, the hirsute, thick-bodied actor, who walks with his arms jauntily flapping against his sides like penguin wings, has been wittily cast against type, his innate congeniality masking Harry’s amorality. The motives underlying Harry’s obsession with Michel, however—to the extent that they can be determined—aren’t terribly convincing. Harry isn’t driven by sexual desire for either of his hosts but, apparently, by a love of art, something that probably only a Frenchman would kill for.

Although far superior to the current run of screen fare, and considerately discreet in its depiction of violence, With a Friend Like Harry… is a bit too contemplative to deliver the gripping suspense of its models. Eschewing Hitchcock’s famous subjective shots—which force us to share the peril and guilt of his protagonists—Moll observes his characters with detached objectivity. He’s more concerned with weaving ironic patterns than building tension, as evidenced by the movie’s perversely tranquil coda, which indicates that Harry, however demented, has indeed liberated Michel from a stressful, unfulfilled existence. Although fastidiously executed and consistently entertaining, Moll’s film falls short of tapping into those dark recesses of the mind where nightmares are born. CP