Laurent LucasSergi LopezMathilde SeignerSophie Guillemin
Harry, He's Here to Help
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Director: Dominik Moll
Writer: Dominik Moll, Gilles Marchand, Francis Villain
Language: French
Country: France
Actor: Laurent Lucas, Sergi Lopez, Mathilde Seigner, Sophie Guillemin, Liliane Rovere, Dominique Rozan, Michel Fau
Format: 117 minutes
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 13 January 2011
If possible, see this movie without knowing anything about it. Stop reading now if you're up for something French and pretty good, albeit a carefully modest example of its genre.
Don't let the title confuse you, incidentally. Harry himself is the one who's here to help.
It's a French movie that one often sees compared with Hitchcock, although it should be said that we're talking about low-level Hitchcock where everything's limited and domestic. Don't expect international conspiracies, spies or gangsters. It's simply a laid-back suspense thriller, albeit one that not trying to be scary and in any case is halfway through before it starts tipping its hand as to what it's up to. Nevertheless I can understand the comparisons with Hitchcock. He'd have had fun with this, although I suspect he might have had the script beefed up a bit first.
I should set the scene. Michel (Laurent Lucas) and Claire (Mathilde Seigner) are driving off on a family holiday with their three young daughters. Unfortunately it's a hot French summer and their car doesn't have air-conditioning, so everyone's a bit fractious. The eldest girl in particular is begging for a slap. They'd been on the way to visit Michel's parents, but eventually it's decided that that's simply not possible today and they should head back to their holiday house. What's great about this family is that they're so normal. Nothing about them says "movie characters". In particular I rather liked Laurent Lucas, who reminded me of Arthur Darvill's Rory in Doctor Who in the way he's so doggedly straightforward, plain and unimaginative. He's an honest man. He's not charming or handsome, but he's direct with everyone and always tries to do the right thing. With him, what you see is what you get.
Anyway, the family stops at a motorway service station and there meets Harry (Sergi Lopez). Harry says he went to school with Michel, although he's the only one who remembers that. Harry's friendly. Harry remembers teenage poems and stories Michel wrote for the school bulletin all those years ago and has even memorised some of it. Harry invites himself along to dinner with the family that evening, along with his girlfriend Plum (Sophie Guillemin). Harry turns out to be both wealthy and a little disproportionate in his idea of what makes an appropriate gift, e.g. a car.
Obviously my antennae were twitching like nobody's business. There's nothing at all wrong with Harry here and indeed he's genuinely helpful, but I was still on the lookout for confirmation that he and Michel really had gone to school together and he wasn't just a creepy stalker who'd done his research, for instance.
The film unfolds from there. Harry does indeed really want to help Michel. If the film hadn't been so definite about Harry's sexual relationship with Plum, I'd have been looking for homoeroticism. He encourages him to return to writing, for instance, which is a plot thread that helps to show the unexpected effect he's been having on Michel's stoicism. It's both an indicator of his malignant and benign influence. Michel ends up going a bit weird, but he does indeed write. I'm going to stop summarising the film now for fear of spoilers, but I will say that a Hollywood studio would have imposed lots of life-or-death jeopardy for the third act, whether or not it made sense. The actual plot resolution could perhaps be called abrupt or throwaway, but that said I liked it. It's refreshing. At the very least it's appropriate for a film that hadn't been trying to be a heavyweight scary thriller, while I quite liked the fact that they then keep going for a while and I started getting nervous as I waited to see if they'd throw in a last-minute twist.
It's all about Michel, really. How much has Harry changed him? That's the question we're really waiting to see answered.
What's good about the film is its tone and detail. Michel and Claire seem so realistic that I can't help thinking they remind me of my friends, yet I can't think of any specific examples. What I do recognise though is the down-to-earth way they deal with the day-to-day routine of parenthood. The tiny girls rule all. Any decision is liable to be made for you by a daughter, albeit usually unwittingly (e.g. she's got an ear infection and she needs antibiotics). They're practical and unsentimental. They're very good parents, but they have their differences and Claire's less enthusiastic than Michel about all the work they're having to put into fixing up their holiday cottage. I'm not saying that the story's bad, because it's not at all, but it's the realism of the characters and the psychological level of the story that really kept me watching.
Laurent Lucas of course is great. Mathilde Seigner is also rock-solid. Sergi Lopez is fine in what's obviously the all-important role, keeping a lid on in scenes where the temptation must have been to go over the top. Sophie Guillemin never struck me as being as shallow and stupid as the script seemed to want her to be, but she's perfectly good and consistent in what she's doing.
There's a little nudity, by the way, but not front-on. Oh, and to go off on a tangent about something ridiculously minor, I like the film's depiction of dreams. They're not film school exercises, but merely random stuff that doesn't fit together and doesn't last long. Michel's first dream might be, for me, the most authentically dream-like dream I've seen in a film to date.
This film won a bunch of awards, for what it's worth. The main ones would be France's Cesar Awards, but it also got nominations for Best Foreign Film or similar from the likes of the BAFTAs and the European Film Awards. Sergi Lopez got recognised a lot as Best Actor. I'm a little surprised at that last one, but I won't argue. I've said that this film would be said to be in the suspense or thriller genres, but in practice I think it's more of a rather good character piece about three people (Plum doesn't really count). The film has some memorable "what the hell?" moments, but they're as likely as not to be "I can't believe he said that". French cinema's famously fond of subtlety and underplotted character-based films, but here that's being applied to a genre better known for melodrama. The results work rather well, actually.