Thursday, 4 October 2012

Harry, He's Here to Help (2001)

Harry, He's Here to Help is a psychological French thriller released in 2000 and directed by German born Dominic Moll. The film opened to great acclaim with critics comparing it to the works of Claude Chabrol, Alfred Hitchcock and the Coen brothers. The 2001 Ceaser Awards saw the film win Best Director, Best Actor, Best Editor and it was also nominated for the prestigious Palm'd or at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, where it was beaten by Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark.

The film tells the story of married couple Michael and Claire (Laurent Lucas and Mathilde Seigner) who, along with their three children are travelling to their picturesque, yet somewhat dilapidated holiday home in the country. Amid the wails of worn out children and the fraught tension of the long car journey, the family stop for a toilet break where Michael bumps into an old school friend Harry (Sergi Lopez), of whom Michael has no memory.

Their reunion continues in the car park, where Harry and his girlfriend Plum (Sophie Guillemin) invite themselves along to the holiday home. Harry, clearly lacking in social graces, imposes on the family and then surprises everyone with a rendition of a poem that Michael had written at school. Harry and Plum are invited to spend the night in the guest room. However, one night turns into two, then three and the further he exceeds his welcome, the more Harry's behaviour becomes cause for concern...

Director Dominic Moll more than proves his understanding of the suspense genre. The film works magnificently due to the increasing tension on a sliding scale. The more the family trust Harry, the more reasons are revealed why they shouldn't. Moll is confident in his skill, gently revealing moments of horror to the audience whilst leaving the gate-crashed family unknowingly in the dark. Although a few secrets are revealed to the viewer, very little is known of Harry's intentions or history.

The film contains obvious reference to the directorial influence of Chabrol and Hitchcock, but Moll also borrows themes of claustrophobia and frustration from Stanley Kubrik's The Shining (the identical public toilet, writer’s block and the overbearing gaudy room, void of natural light.) He features moments of inexplicable surrealism from David Lynch’s Lost Highway (the scenes led by headlights, and the muted screams of the villain) and also makes reference to The Wizard of Oz (flying monkeys). It is with each nod to the greats that Moll more than proves his understanding of the suspense genre.

Harry plays out under an ever increasing cloud of tension, which is cleverly evoked by the macabre soundtrack. With its lingering cacophony of searing strings, and dissonant piano playing, the music perfectly cranks the threat and suspense, thus enabling the bright visual glare of the summer sunshine to be overshadowed by its darkly menacing tone. The eeriness beyond the visuals allows Moll to juxtapose scenes of brutality and of black comedy to seamless effect.

Each performance is delivered with appropriate subtlety. Lucas and Seigner tackle parenthood in a realistic form. They're the perfect combination, both equally suggesting they're exasperated, and attempting to survive sleepless nights and endless exhaustion. Michael is given more scope than his wife which enables Lucas to develop darker shades to the character and he achieves this effortlessly. Often Michael will show signs of repressed fury that mirror those of Harry. His frustrations though, are made clear. He’s on a supposed holiday in a home that he must continue to build and as he builds the home, his life begins to crumble around him. What with all of that plus sleep deprivation, it’s easy to empathise with his feelings.

Sergi Lopez, on the other hand, ensures Harry’s frustrations are covered behind an affable persona and a kindly grin. It is only in moments of solitude that he lets the mask slip and reveals the dual nature of his personality. Lopez, it must be noted, does not resort to histrionics typical of the thriller villain. A subtle change of expression is just enough to imply his bridled fury and strike fear into the audience. It’s his everyday regularity that makes him so troublesome to watch. His performance itself is the embodiment of suspense, in the knowledge that he could go crazy bananas in a split second. Sophie Guillemin, although a secondary character, delivers a mesmerising performance as Harry's accomplice Prune (aka Plum). The screenplay reveals very little about her character and Guillemin too gives nothing away. That being said though, the performance is bursting with personality and her role is approached with great assurance. Prune glides through the film with sensual confidence but with enough ambiguity to ensure her relationship with Harry will remain one of the film’s greatest mysteries.

Suspense of this nature is often associated with stalking, possessive lodgers, sexual obsession and unrequited love and since the 90's the Hollywood format has become diluted and predictable. Yet, Harry, He's Here to Help is rich in substance and has confidence in its own complexity. Dominik Moll maintains the film’s secrets without affecting the tone or pace and in doing so, adds distinct originality to an otherwise well worn genre. It is directed masterfully, gripping in its mystery, genuinely thrilling and a lesson in the true concept of suspense. Harry is a film that truly resonates, but be warned, once you let him into your life, he will stay with you and will more than likely never leave.

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