"Funny and scary," quoth Quentin Tarantino, "two great tastes that taste great together!" He was referring to his own Pulp Fiction, but the quip could be applied equally to the dark-horse art-house hit of the moment, the refreshingly Tarantino-free With a Friend Like Harry. Everybody's buzzing it as France's answer to Strangers on a Train. No wonder: It's about a stranger (Harry, played to giddy perfection by Sergi Lopez) who, bumping into a man on a road trip, offers unrequested help in bumping off pesky relatives, as in Hitchcock's film. The "fat bastard" (as Strangers on a Train co-writer Raymond Chandler called Hitch to his face) is director Dominik Moll's favorite director, and he admits he named his hero Harry to evoke The Trouble With Harry (as well as Harry Lime and Woody Allen's Harry Block). This Harry's surname is Balestrero–Henry Fonda's character in The Wrong Man.
But just put Hitchcock out of your mind, OK? Because With a Friend Like Harry is no movie brat's bloodless Hitch homage. Moll went straight to the source to make this picture: He steeped himself in Patricia Highsmith, author of the original Strangers on a Train and the novels about Tom Ripley, a killer who steals his best friend's identity and traffics in other people's fraudulent art (a role played with stony gravitas by Dennis Hopper in The American Friend, slickly by Alain Delon in Purple Noon, in gay earnest by Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley and no doubt innovatively by John Malkovich in the forthcoming Ripley's Game). Moll's character Harry is like Highsmith's pragmatic psychos, and he's got a ripe, Ripleyesquely eccentric obsession with the high school buddy he accidentally reunites with, Michel (Laurent Lucas, a pouty mouth drooping beneath a pudding-bowl haircut and dead eyes). With a Friend Like Harry scores by echoing Highsmith's tone (muted horror, deadpan glee), her agnosticism about human motives and her style, as implacable as a sleepwalker in a meticulously real world.
When Highsmith first wrote a Ripley novel, she recalled, "I felt that Ripley was writing it–it just came out." That's just how With a Friend Like Harry unspools–as if Harry directed it, leaving us as passively fascinated as his ambiguous victim, Michel. There's a hint of what's up in the credit sequence, an aerial shot of the beat-up car of Michel and his wife, Claire (Mathilde Seigner), rolling down the hot highway with no air conditioning on an anhedonic holiday with their three authentically squalling toddlers. The highway railings look like film sprockets–Michel and Claire don't know it, but their vacation is trapped inside somebody else's movie! The titles cast shadows on the car and road. The whole film is a contest between the quotidian life of harried parenthood and Harry's cold shadowland of the instant fulfillment of every writer's secret wish.
Michel is a thwarted writer, you see. He precariously supports his burdensome clan by teaching French to the Japanese in Paris, but in school he wrote the ambitious, passionately numbskulled poem "The Dagger in the Skin of Night" and the abortive sci-fi novella The Flying Monkeys, about gibbons with propellers on their heads who "did chores and spied on people." He hasn't thought about his diaper-dampened literary dreams in years, but when Michel stops at a gas station and Harry recognizes him, Harry forcibly reminds him of literature's loss.
It's an uncomfortable scene: The men's room walls seem to close in, Harry's urgency is odd, he seems alien–a Spanish actor in a French flick, though his performance won him a Cesar, the French Oscar, for Best Actor. Michel has no memory of his alleged classmate. As Harry itemizes their shared past, you feel sweaty and mesmerized, like Michel. Harry has puckish little parentheses tugging at the corners of his mouth; his smile is like a sunlamp. The windshield wipers on his spotless Mercedes no doubt go, "NICE-guy-NICE-guy." Yet his affability bear-hugs you. Harry makes like a good cop with a bad cop's will to power. Yet what writer can resist someone who quotes you from the school lit mag verbatim, urges you to be true to your gift, hands out cash like a one-man MacArthur Foundation (Harry's rich) and offers your testy wife and keening kids a ride in a car renowned for silence and climate control?