Harry, He's Here to Help Review
French cinema has often been seen as unconventional, at least in comparison to British and American films; this is partially due to the more 'relaxed' attitude to morality that the films appear to promote (read: gratuitous sex and nudity in family films), but more realistically down to the style and wit with which genres are subverted. This can be seen as a legacy begun by such works as Les Enfants du Paradis and La Grande Illusion, via the (French) work of Luis Bunel and Louis Malle, to today's directors like Luc Besson and Christophe (Le Pacte des Loups) Gans. Therefore, that Harry, he's here to help comes across less as a po-faced thriller than a witty black comedy should be of little surprise.
The basic plot, and it's desirable to reveal as little as possible, is fairly simple. Michel (Laurent), a frustrated teacher, is married to Claire (Seigneur), and has three children, who he finds more of a burden that he feels he should. On the way to their holiday house, he meets an old schoolfriend, Harry (Lopez), and Harry's girlfriend Plum (Guillermin) at a petrol station. Unfortunately, Michel is unable to remember who Harry was, although Harry remembers him all too well. The scene is thus set for a story of murder, psychological battles and flying monkeys. And, no, I didn't make that last part up.
Although the film is marketed as a 'nail biting thriller', it's not actually especially suspenseful. One of the reasons for this is that the central mystery of whether Harry is who he claims to be is solved relatively early on, meaning that Moll is able to get deeper into the blackly comic aspects of the menage-a-quatre that develops between the four. There are some wonderfully Hitchcockian moments scattered throughout, however, with an excellently staged shot of Harry simply sitting down, waiting for another character to receive a crucial phone call; rather than overplay the scene with tense music and fast cutting, the effect is to deliberately distance the audience and thus increase interest in the eventual result. It's hard to discuss the film's success as a black comedy without spoiling it, as the funniest moments are based around crucial scenes, but a typical example of the approach of the film is that Harry likes to eat an egg yolk after reaching orgasm. You'll never look at a scrambled egg in the same way again.
The performances are variable, probably because Moll is far more interested in his two male leads than his female leads. Lopez is superb as Harry, making him strangely sympathetic even while his actions become more and more extreme; the trick is, of course, to ground such a character in reality, and to make him believable, and Moll achieves this nicely, creating a semi-Mephistophopelean figure who may, or may not, be tempting Michel into sin. Lucas is also good in a more secondary role as the frustrated husband who slowly begins to find outlets for his frustration, leading to a memorably grim ending which is unlikely to be retained if the threatened Hollywood remake of this gets made any time soon. However, Seigneur and Guillermin are stuck in thankless parts as, respectively, the suspicious wife and the docile girlfriend; while this can perhaps be seen as Moll attempting to make a clever point about the subjugation of women in a patriachal cociety, it is more likely that he was simply less interested in their characters.
Another problem with the film is paradoxically its greatest strength. Throughout the film, things happen which are not explained except in the most general terms, with the expectation being that some twist at the end will explain all the complexities that have hitherto existed. There is indeed a twist at the end, but it's more of a darkly ironic reversal of the situation than any sort of explanation for motivations or behaviour. While it's commendable to have a degree of ambiguity in a film like this, there is a fine line between ambiguity and muddled plotting; I found the film to be refreshingly uncompromising in its refusal to explain, but many will probably feel frustrated and short-changed. However, the film is well worth watching, as an intelligent and witty alternative to the more banal 'thrillers' that seem to be cranked out of Hollywood these days.
Artificial Eye have done a fairly nice job with this anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer (not 1.85:1, as incorrectly stated on the box). Colours are rich, there is no noticeable grain, and the scenes of darkness are kept in pleasing contrast. However, there's also an occasional sense of the picture not being as sharp as it should be, and of some softness in the transfer; while this isn't disastrous, it makes things a bit less pleasing than they should be.
One of the few major differences between this and the French 2-disc SE is that this disc features surround sound only, whereas the French get DTS and 5.1 Surround. However, the omission doesn't hurt that much, to be honest; the vast majority of the film is dialogue-based, with negligible use of the rear speakers or bass, and there is no real use of directional sound effects. Obviously it would be nice to have had the greater range of the DTS and 5.1 tracks, but the surround option does a pretty nice job of presenting the dialogue and music as clearly as you would ask for.
The recent French SE of this boasted a 36-minute making of documentary, some deleted scenes, and the usual assortment of text-based extras. Artificial Eye have, pleasingly, retained the documentary and most of the text extras, with the only real omission being 5 short deleted scenes, which also had optional commentary by Moll. However, the English edition also features subtitles for all the extras, which are of course not present on the French DVD.
The documentary is rather a good one, although nothing groundbreaking; the biggest shock is to see how different Lopez looks in real life to the suave Harry. However, it's pleasingly candid, although not as much so as the similar documentary on Les Rivieres Pourpres, and there's some nice behind the scenes footage, as well as some funny outtakes in it. Well worth a watch. The other decent extra is the misleadingly labelled 'production notes'. Rather than being a bland collection of presskit notes, it is a fairly lengthy and very interesting interview with Moll, in which he explains his reasoning behind some of the choices he made, as well as clarifying one rather major plot point. The extras are rounded out by a weak trailer, some unnecessary stills, and some short biographies.
A very interesting and very entertaining film is presented on a pretty good disc by Artificial Eye, continuing their run of strong DVDs. With some interesting extras and a pretty good transfer, this one's certainly going to be of interest to anyone who likes rather offbeat black comedies.