With a Friend Like Harry (2000) is in essence a thriller, but it chills with the creeping dread of a horror film. This tightly-plotted, slightly surreal French production has unfortunately slipped gently into obscurity. Twenty years after its release, director Dominik Moll’s quietly chilling flick deserves another look. In a world where the wealthy seem increasingly determined to grab power as much as resources, this story of a man of means who uses his wealth to control others seems especially apt.
When it was released in 2000, With a Friend Like Harry was critically acclaimed and a festival darling. Along with several nominations and wins from foreign film organizations, it was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival; at France’s César Awards, it won best actor (for leading man Sergi López), director, sound, and editing out of nine nominations.
Upon the film’s release, critics noted the picture’s Hitchockian influences. The combo of a supposed innocent and an obsessive psychopath does recall the dynamics of Strangers on a Train (1950), based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel, and the music has passages that recall the quieter moments of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho (1960) score, or the swirling disorientation of his Vertigo (1958) soundtrack. Harry’s manipulative ways also mirror the seductive but uneasy lure of Highsmith’s Tom Ripley character. And all of these apparent influences have plots which feature immoral acts committed in the name of pursuing wealth and the power it brings.
The story begins with a family of five: Michel (Laurent Lucas), Claire (Mathilde Seigner) and their three young daughters, Jeanne, Sarah, and Iris (Victoire de Koster, Laurie Caminata, and Lorena Caminata) who are en route to their run-down country home. Crammed together in a stuffy car with no air conditioner, the children are cranky, and Michel and Claire are tired and frustrated. It is in this state that Michel meets former high school classmate Harry in a rest stop restroom.
Harry immediately recognizes Michel, who doesn’t remember him. Trying to dig up an image of Harry from his past, Michel is unnerved by this man with an eerie perma-grin who recalls so much about his youth. As unsettled as Harry makes him feel, Michel is convinced to have the mysterious man with his sleek luxury car and bombshell girlfriend Plum (Sophie Guillemin) over to their house for a drink. As that drink turns into an extended stay, Harry becomes increasingly, and disturbingly, influential over Michel. What no one but Harry knows is that he is willing to use his wealth, and the entitlement that comes with it, to go to extremes to mold his former classmate’s life to his liking.
Harry never questions his own judgment. When he tells Michel, “I think every problem needs a solution,” he clearly feels that he is the man to solve them. His wealth gives him confidence, but it also imbues him with an unearned feeling of power. In this way, Harry is much like the trio of billionaires who attempted to put the force of their fortunes into grabbing the presidency in the 2020 race. These men were uniformly stunned when many mocked their candidacies. Their wealth, and the power that came with it, gave them the impression that they were qualified to assume control.
Harry is equally certain that his perspective is the one the matters. When he buys the family an expensive SUV to replace their failing family car, he doesn’t ask permission and he can’t understand their discomfort with the expensive gift. When he says “excess is the only way to blossom,” visions of daily Bloomberg flyers in the mailbox come to mind. Harry will use his money to mold lives in the most ostentatious way, but also in his way, oblivious and entirely lacking self doubt.
Michel’s wealthy parents seem to share this belief with Harry. Without permission, they remodel the villa’s bathroom into a gaudy pink womb of shiny tile and modern light fixtures. They have used their wealth to force their tastes upon the family without consideration for the style of the rest of the house or the desires of their loved ones. They also evoke the mindset of billionaires who ignore the basic needs of people, instead pursuing their pet visions like building colonies in space and making fantastical machines, all funded by exploited workers. Michel is clearly familiar with powerful people whose whims trump his own wishes.
As much as Michel hates being controlled, he clearly finds luxury alluring. He retreats to that pink bathroom, the most opulent place in the villa, when Harry inspires him to write again. While he protests the gift of the car, he is easily seduced by the comforts it offers. Even knowing that he is being bought, he gives in. It is the sort of mindset that keeps the wealthy in power and often unchecked, if not always infallible.
When Harry’s plans start to fall apart on him, in a solitary moment he explodes in a terrifying rage. His assumption that his resources can buy him control has been proven wrong and it leaves him unhinged. The outburst is shocking, because up until then he has been eerily calm and confident in his dominance, if hinting at a simmering inner discontent which inspires violence that mostly takes place off-screen. It brings to mind the way Alfred Hitchcock compared a good suspense film to the steady tension of a steam engine. When the illusion of power is destroyed and that tension explodes, Harry is weakened.
In the end, With a Friend Like Harry is insidious in the way it lures you into accepting an easy, efficient resolution. It seems that Michel has effectively stopped Harry’s misguided helpfulness with little struggle. His family life appears refreshed and newly peaceful. They have settled easily into the comfort of the new car, savoring a taste of the life it represents. The sense of calm isn’t complete though; Michel’s placidity in the wake of the horrors he has experienced is as unsettling as Harry’s quiet, determined smile. Harry is gone, but his philosophy remains.