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Dying to Help 

French director Dominick Moll asks a complicated question in last year's thriller, With a Friend Like Harry ... . Adding a brilliant twist to the device of the mysterious stranger, Moll wonders how we take control of our life, and what will be the cost? With his two protagonists, Harry (Sergio Lopez) and Michel (Laurent Lucas), Moll offers two very different perspectives, and spends much of the film dissecting the effects of one on the other.

We've seen a lot of this before. A typically well-meaning but invariably weak-willed everyman is drawn by chance (fate?) into the world of a stranger who at first seems to have the best of intentions but ultimately has a hidden agenda that leads to disaster. The question often becomes, then, what happens during the transformation of the everyman?

Hitchcock put this idea to triumphant effect in his 1951 thriller, Strangers on a Train, in which a chance meeting leads to misunderstanding and murder. Then there's Curtis Hanson's underrated 1998 thriller, Bad Influence, which featured Rob Lowe emboldening and then later setting up James Spader. Its comments on '80s materialism and alpha-male survival was also trashy fun.

And now we have With a Friend Like Harry ..., which screened at October's New Orleans Film Festival under the literally translated title Harry, He's Here to Help. In Harry, a self-satisfied and independently wealthy man, Moll offers us a villain whose intentions seem altogether noble. Harry means well; he just happens to kill people.

Technically, he's not a stranger but a long-ago classmate who runs into hassled husband-father Michel during a rest stop as Michel is taking his family to their sagging vacation home. The are almost polar opposites; Harry is completely self-satisfied, independently wealthy with a beautiful but dim girlfriend and a fancy car. Michel is a hassled family man with an intelligent but demanding wife, three carping daughters and a car on its last leg.

Harry's ability to recall their relationship -- and Michel's inability to do same -- provides an instant core to this story, co-written by Moll and Gilles Marchand. Harry remembers Michel as a gifted writer whose poem he can recite verbatim and whose unfinished novel he believed has the potential for greatness.

All this unfolds after Harry has insinuated himself into Michel and his family's lives by asking to allow him and his girlfriend Plum (Sophie Guillemin) to tag along on their vacation. Over dinner at the fixer-upper of a vacation home, Harry recites the poem while Michel sits stunned and his wife, Claire (Mathilde Seigner), is both surprised and amused. Harry has embraced the poetry of life, and lives it with purpose and fulfillment. (His credo: "Solve every problem.") Setting aside what might have been his dreams for the practical life of a married father, Michel has made one compromise after another.

While Michel insists to Harry that he's content with his lot in life, Harry knows that something is missing, and that he can help Michel regain control of his true destiny regardless of what it takes.

And more and more, Claire sees Harry for the threat that he most certainly is. But Moll doesn't go all the way here, even as Harry's attempts to help lead to murder. In reality, Harry's right; Michel isn't happy and is denying himself a chance to explore something he once cherished. When Michel takes Harry's advice and starts writing again, Claire warns Harry to leave her husband alone. His protest almost sounds like it's coming from a therapist: "We're touching vital issues, close to the bone."

But Michel is also right; life often is about compromise, and you do the best you can when your priorities shift. The question becomes how Michel can reclaim his life, and what expense?

The most thrilling thing about this thriller, besides the mystery behind Harry's agenda -- unless, of course, it's simply that he is in fact "here to help" -- is Moll's subtlety of storytelling and cinematic style. Virtually all of the violence -- and there's plenty of it -- is implied. And aside from Mozart piano concerto here and a fantasy sequence there, Moll's approach is almost anti-Hitchcockian in its subdued nature.

So's the acting. Lopez, who won France's version of the Oscar for best actor, has spent most of his career playing good guys and clearly uses that reputation here. His self-satisfaction seems shaken only by what he sees as a moral wrong, but God help anyone who shakes it.

While Laurent's Michel clearly is the straight man to Lopez's Harry, Laurent nevertheless effects the embodiment of a man in what seems like a typical life crisis, but his physical expressions aren't just that of a beaten man; they're one of someone still searching to find his place.

He just needs a little help.

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