He's Here to Help
The 1990s saw a fad for intimacy thrillers involving individuals, couples or families menaced by a seemingly friendly but secretly psychotic neighbour, postman, babysitter, therapist or cop.
Harry, He's Here to Help may be burdened with a clumsily translated title, but it is sure-footed in its return to the origins of the intimacy thriller.
Director Dominik Moll and co-writer Gilles Marchand take as their model Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951) and the Patricia Highsmith novel on which it was based. In Hitchcock's movie, a chance meeting between two men leads to an infernal pact, in which each agrees to carry the other's evil wish.
Here, Michel (Laurent Lucas) runs into an old school buddy, Harry (Sergi Lopez) – in, of all, places, a public toilet. Michel can hardly recall his companion, but Harry remembers a great deal. Indeed, Michel figures as a kind of hero for Harry.
Introducing himself and his partner, Plum (Sophie Guillemin) to Michel's wife, Claire (Mathilde Seigner), Harry surprises everyone by being able to recite the erotic doggerel that Michel fleetingly wrote as a young man. This mildly comical and embarrassing act sets in motion a disturbing chain of events.
Harry, He's Here to Help sticks faithfully to two key principles of the contemporary intimacy thriller. Firstly, the daily life of the normal hero must be beset with a niggling malaise. Michel is ground down by the pressures of his young married existence, such as house renovation; he constantly snaps at Claire. Harry's attentions release in him a desire for a road he never took – the free, artistic life as a writer.
The second principle is that the increasingly demented anti-hero must move in and occupy every aspect of his victim's life. Harry is here to help because he takes upon himself the task of interpreting and then carrying out his beloved master's every wish. He keys into Michel's moments of resentment and disapproval. He is willing to do everything, and sacrifice anything.
Moll's strength as a director is in his work with the actors. Lopez is especially impressive as Harry – the kind of dangerous fan who switches in a moment from supplication to aggression. Lucas has a harder task, since he must play the kind of blank, passive, ordinary hero (beloved of Claude Chabrol's Hitchcockian thrillers) who slowly alters his personality under the influence of a malevolent Other, to the point of experiencing the mysterious transference of guilt that French critics of the '50s detected in Hitchcock's work.
In this absorbing psychological pas de deux between men, the women inevitably take a background role – although both Seigner and Guillemin give indelible colour to their very different parts. I could not help but recall the argument of Theodore Price's 1992 book Hitchcock and Homosexuality, which interprets the director's entire career in the light of Strangers on a Train: a man who is uneasy in his marriage meets another man, his repressed wishes come to the surface, he attempts to cancel the situation and inadvertently becomes a mirror of his stalker.
Harry, He's Here to Help works on these suggestive levels. But it is especially good on the surface level, as a highly entertaining and skilfully crafted thriller.
© Adrian Martin February 2001