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« Pen, Pencil, and Poison | Main | Diabolique »
Thursday
Dec162010

With a Friend Like Harry

Upon graduation from high school eighteen years ago, I was convinced – as are most of us, I suppose – that a fifteen- or twenty-year reunion would be something extraordinary.  Everyone’s life would be so utterly different that we would approach classmates with remarks appropriate for such a hiatus and be shocked to learn that these were not the people with whom we attended classes, but their spouses.  Some people would have mutated so drastically as to be unrecognizable, and all in all the experience would be akin to going to a masquerade at a zoo of futuristic intergalactic humanoids.  The only question remaining would be on which side of the glass (or bars) we should look for our old chums.  Well, I don’t know about you, but the few people I’ve seen from my graduating class over the years haven’t changed appreciably.  Let me rephrase that: they changed more over the course of high school than they have since, which is to be expected given the hormonal and orientational zigzags that highlighted our existence at that time (especially true for men).  So it would surprise me greatly if at some point before our school’s glorious silver reunion I were to encounter a classmate whom I knew reasonably well and be unable to identify that person when prompted.  More surprising still would be a reuniting that did not seem that random, that smacked even of some sinister plot, and that began to take over details in my life until that long-lost coeval became, well, a sort of advisor.  Yes, this can really only happen in a work of fiction, and that would be this odd but entertaining film.

The course of events is indeed what I mention above, and the person who usurps my place in this narrative is Michel (Laurent Lucas), a husband and father of three hampered by the usual battery of familial duties and restrictions.  In a rather bizarre locale for such life-altering happenings, the bathroom of a gas station, Michel meets Harry (Sergi López), a man probably his age (both actors were born in the same year) but otherwise as different from him as can be.  It is Harry who recognizes Michel, a gentle, perhaps overly passive sort, but Michel cannot place Harry, who speaks French with a pronounced Spanish accent and is as brash and pushy as Michel is pliable.  After numerous attempts to elicit a memory or some kind of repressed memento of their former friendship, Harry plays his trump card and recites a preposterous poem that Michel wrote in high school called "The Dagger in the Skin of the Night."  Since, in films, quoting someone’s work back to him begets either flight or an unbreakable bond, the two men decide that they should honor the past and become buddies once more, and to that end, Harry and his girlfriend follow Michel and his family on their vacation in the countryside.

Who exactly had been privy to this poem apart from its juvenile creator, we may never know, but a rather unpleasant thought crosses our minds at this juncture and the script never persuades us that this conclusion may be incorrect.  I will not say what it is because the more I reflect on that possibility, the more likely it seems.  A better way of engaging the subject is to consider the following: we are duly aware that Harry is up to no good, for if Harry had only happy and caring intentions for Michel and his family, we wouldn’t be watching a mystery but an afterschool special.  We doubt that the film will simply devolve into bloodletting (although, be warned, it is not free of violence), because blurbs would inevitably betray this derailment and it would be shelved alongside so many other films involving an intruder in the family.  So what could Harry’s secret be?  Not much is revealed by telling you that Harry, being the altruistic fellow he is, takes one look at Michel’s plain but stable life and thinks that he has wasted his time being a family man.  "You are a great writer," Harry tells him, in some form, more than once.  But what he is really saying is: "You are a coward.  You have chosen the easy bourgeois path and taken as few risks as possible."  That’s all well and good, but what purpose could such reprimands serve?  If Harry wants Michel to do him a favor, his mafioso tactic of bestowing upon him an unwanted gift (in this case, a lovely sports utility vehicle that the family of five cannot possibly afford) would make perfect sense.  Harry would then bide his time and then, one day in the near future, come to Michel with a request.  He needs him to do something that is rather unpleasant, but he knows he can count on him because they’re such good friends.  After all, he gave him that SUV.  And the next thing we know, the local mayor is bound and gagged in the trunk of that four-wheeled token of friendship and the two of them (Michel with some repulsion, Harry like a hurricane) are beating him into bloody oblivion.              

But this is precisely what does not occur.  Harry’s acts and words (his motto is "solve every problem") are not high-interest loans that require no payment for the first twelve months then balloon to unwieldy amounts thereafter.  Rather, Harry seems to embody everything that Michel thinks he should be doing but doesn’t have the wherewithal to pull off.  These tips for better living include dealing with Michel’s bickering elderly parents, returning to writing (Harry also quotes a equally ridiculous science fiction story that a teenage Michel left incomplete), and having sex like a real man, like Harry has with his girlfriend Plum.  Yes, Michel could be so different if he just tried, so why doesn’t he try?  After all, he has nothing to lose but a boring life and a deadweight family who doesn’t appreciate the artistic genius he’s held bottled up all these years.  You may also ask why nothing is made of the fact that Harry is a foreigner from "the South," and why he seems to embody every vice taken to its socially accepted limit (and sometimes well past it).  Why not, Michel, says Harry.  And again and again Michel finds himself repeating those words, and then acting on them as if they had been his ideas all along.  Is this just more evidence of that truthful adage about friends knowing more about you and what you need than you do yourself?  Let's just say that's one interpretation.

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