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Sinister simplicity

Simplicity is what makes Dominik Moll’s thriller, With a Friend Like Harry, so eerily effective. It starts off with an ordinary encounter. Michel is driving his wife and three young daughters from Paris to the country house they’re slowly renovating and stops at a highway rest area. In the men’s room, he’s greeted by Harry, an old classmate he doesn’t remember. But the ingratiating Harry remembers him very well, and gradually becomes the driving force in the passive Michel’s life.

That these events are at once sinister and banal has to do with the careful choices made by the 38-year-old, German-born Moll, who now resides in France and won the Best Director César (the French equivalent of an Oscar) for With a Friend Like Harry, his second feature.

“In France now,” says Moll, “there is a tendency to have only handheld camerawork — you just take your camera and you follow the actors. So a lot of films kind of look alike, because they don’t think about making choices anymore. I really try to think about where to put the camera and why. For instance, the first scene is shot in very tight close-ups to stress the tension in the car, and the fact that I shot a little bit from the back [seat] increases the feeling of him having all those children on his back. I try to be, as far as the camerawork is concerned, as precise as possible, but also as simple as possible.

“I don’t like to show off with big camera crane movements,” he continues. “I mean, everybody does that and it doesn’t mean anything anymore. For instance, Fargo is very simple and at the same time it’s a very ambitious film which has a very strong visual style. That’s really something I try to do in my own way.”

To understand the peculiar tone of the insidiously creepy With a Friend Like Harry, think of Blue Velvet, specifically the way it portrays menace in the most commonplace of circumstances. Moll, who co-wrote the script with longtime friend Gilles Marchand, also points to Patricia Highsmith as a particular inspiration. In novels such as The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train (adapted into films with varying degrees of success), Highsmith’s style seems almost artless. Using very plain language, she draws the reader in slowly, until they (along with her slippery protagonists) discover that by taking a few steps off their normal path, they’ve inexplicably wound up in hell. (Another German filmmaker, Wim Wenders, successfully captured her attitude about the innocuous nature of evil in his Ripley adaptation, The American Friend.)

“I like the atmosphere of her books,” says Moll, “that it often starts with everyday life, with descriptions of very normal things, and suddenly you are in a very strange situation and you don’t know how you got there. I like the characters and the relationship between her characters because they are not conventional. They are very strange, have strange attractions between people — you don’t exactly know why — and also I like the fact that in several of her books it’s quite amoral.”

That’s the feeling in Moll’s film, whose French title, literally translated, means “Harry, a Friend who Wishes you Well.” Played with just the right balance of friendly menace by Sergi Lopez (who also won a César), Harry is driven by a particularly twisted form of devotion. In his view, the once-promising writer Michel has become docile and complacent, adversely affected by the compromises of his blandly bourgeois existence. Harry means to revive him, by force if necessary.

“I wanted to tell the story of somebody who was a bit drowned in his everyday life,” explains Moll, “with all its problems — with his little car, with his house, with his wife, with his children, all that — and was suddenly confronted by somebody else who had a completely different approach to life, who represented some kind of complete freedom and to see what would happen when you put those two persons together.”

Free of family attachments and financial worries, Harry indulges his intense whims and sees nothing as an obstacle he can’t surmount.

“He has something very childlike,” Moll says of the interloper. “Children are like that — when they want something, you can’t reason with them, they just want it. Harry’s a little bit like that, very radical. The problem is that he’s so focused on Michel that the other people around don’t count for him. He thinks he can kill them if it’s necessary for Michel.”

This central relationship is almost sexual in its intensity, but Moll doesn’t use that easy shorthand. Harry’s love, and Michel’s acceptance of his influence, are immensely complex in their continually shifting dynamics, and Moll is reluctant to reduce it to an easy resolution.

“I don’t think Michel’s a blank slate,” he says responding to one theory. “He just doesn’t want to accept certain things that are in him, and Harry brings those things out. Actually Harry doesn’t put his own desires on Michel, but Michel’s desires which Michel wasn’t aware of anymore.

“From the beginning to the end,” Moll says of Harry, “he commits crimes, but he is driven by very good intentions.”

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com

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