Helmer Dominik Moll gets it right in the very first scene of "Harry, He's Here to Help," perfectly capturing the mundane angst of family vacations, and this twisted black comedy rarely misses the mark for the next two hours. Pic, centering on an old pal who disrupts his former schoolmate's life, showcases remarkably witty writing and tremendous perfs from all four leads, most notably Sergi Lopez as charming psycho Harry.

Helmer Dominik Moll gets it right in the very first scene of “Harry, He’s Here to Help,” perfectly capturing the mundane angst of family vacations, and this twisted black comedy rarely misses the mark for the next two hours. Pic, centering on an old pal who disrupts his former schoolmate’s life, showcases remarkably witty writing and tremendous perfs from all four leads, most notably Sergi Lopez as charming psycho Harry. Moll masterfully weaves together Hitchcockian thriller elements and brainy comedy to create an original film that’s never less than surprising. Powered by strong reviews, specialty item could travel in international arthouse circles but will necessi-tate careful handling in English-speaking territories.

Strange tale opens with Michel (Laurent Lucas) and Claire (Mathilde Seigner) on the brink of losing it big time in a hot, cramped car with their three young daughters, Jeanne (Victoire de Koster), Sarah (Laurie Caminita) and Iris (Lorena Caminita). The scene is set for the vacation from hell, complete with complaining kids and exasperated parents. Then along comes Harry (Lopez).

At a roadside pit stop, Michel meets an odd fellow in the washroom; he doesn’t recognize him at first, but, with much prompting from Harry, Michel realizes they were in high school together. It is a wonderful scene: With a blissed-out grin on his face, Harry stands there looking pleasant but somehow off-kilter as he talks to a surprised Michel.

By the time they hit the road again, Harry and his plump, attractive girlfriend, Plum (Sophie Guillemin), have insinuated themselves into Michel and Claire’s life. They follow them to the run-down farmhouse where the family holidays, and, before long, Harry is amusing Claire and disturbing Michel by reciting from memory a poem Michel wrote for the school paper 20 years earlier. By the time Harry spontaneously buys them a pricey jeep, Michel and Claire are beginning to pick up mighty weird vibes.

For Harry, who has lived an easy life thanks to his father’s wealth, there are no problems, only solutions. If your car’s broken down, you just buy a new one. If someone is interfering with you, well, you just get rid of them like an old car.

By the one-hour mark, Harry is off on a murderous rampage, and it’s a testament to Moll’s skill that he manages to maintain the right tone throughout. Once the blood starts flowing, it would be easy — and not all that interesting — for the pic to become either a sledgehammer satire or a routine thriller. But Moll segues effortlessly from the violent moments to scenes of morbid humor without missing a beat.

One of the main reasons “Harry” works so well is that the pic keeps the viewer on edge. Harry is a seriously charming psychopath, and it’s easy to see why Michel is so taken with him initially.

There are many welcome shades to Michel’s character as well. Unlike Claire, Michel is easily pushed around by people and events, even when Harry is stretching the limits of acceptable behavior. Moll has succeeded in crafting an unusual offering on a topic — the everyday anxieties facing a young family on the verge of parental burnout — that is all too familiar.

Lopez, excellent in last year’s “Une Liaison Pornographique,” is spot-on as Harry. From the moment he appears onscreen, he captivates with his mix of affable magnetism and repressed fury and makes it immediately clear that something not quite right lurks beneath the rosy veneer. Lucas has the sullen but charismatic look more common to snooty British rock ‘n’ rollers than to thesps (in fact he looks like a refugee from the Verve or Oasis), and he is able to express a lot about his character without showcasing open emotions.

Seigner is good as the harried and suspicious wife, while Guillemin, who was also terrific in last year’s “Ennui,” once again crafts a character who’s more sensual than smart but is anything but a bimbo.

The score from veteran composer David Sinclair Whitaker, who penned music for many classic British vampire pics, moves nicely from fluffy fare to increasingly sinister old-fashioned horror pic numbers. Good use is also made of a scratchy vintage version of “Ramona,” sung by Dolores del Rio, which pops up throughout pic.

Superior widescreen lensing pumps up eeriness to good effect via lots of images of spooky nighttime countryside vistas.

Harry, He's Here to Help

France

Production

A Diaphana Films production. (International sales: Mercure Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Michel Saint-Jean. Directed by Dominik Moll. Screenplay, Moll, Gilles Marchand.

Crew

Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), Matthieu Poirot-Delpech; editor, Yannick Kergoat; music, David Sinclair Whitaker; production designer, Michel Barthelemy; costume designer, Virginie Montel; sound (Dolby Digital), Francois Maurel, Gerard Hardy. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 11, 2000. Running time: 117 MIN.

With

Michel - Laurent Lucas
Harry - Sergi Lopez
Claire - Mathilde Seigner
Plum - Sophie Guillemin
With: Liliane Rovere, Dominique Rozan, Michel Fau, Victoire de Koster, Laurie Caminita, Lorena Caminita.

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