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With Influences Like These ...

Director Dominick Moll drew from masters Hitchcock and Highsmith for his French thriller "With a Friend Like Harry.'

April 22, 2001|RICHARD NATALE | Richard Natale is a regular contributor to Calendar

When it was released in France last year, writer-director Dominick Moll's wry thriller "With a Friend Like Harry" earned him comparisons to novelist Patricia Highsmith and directors Alfred Hitchcock and Claude Chabrol. Well, two out of three ain't bad.

Careful, measured and shy, the 38-year-old German-born filmmaker, who resembles a tall, overgrown boy, is in Los Angeles to fulfill his publicity obligations on "Harry" and clearly new at the task of self-promotion. While he is flattered by the Highsmith-Hitchcock mentions, the Chabrol references are way off base, he says.

"Chabrol doesn't have Hitchcock's dreamlike quality," explains Moll. "His films strike me as being much more about everyday life. And he's gotten lazy. His films have no drive, no passion, whereas Hitchcock was always trying to move ahead. He experimented up until the very end."

Moll acknowledges his debt to the master of suspense, particularly in his portrayal of the film's mysterious title character, though in "Harry" his approach is closer to Hitchcock's humorous "The Trouble With Harry" than his adaptation of Highsmith's sinister "Strangers on a Train." There's no portentous music, no flashy frissons, no thriller-like set pieces.

Psychologically, though, "Harry" is closer in tone to Highsmith, building suspense out of character observation. "I like it when things stay simple, precise, no strange camera angles, the way the Coen brothers did in 'Fargo,' " Moll says. The straight-ahead directorial style, he says, allows him to be ambitious thematically, without the two elements battling each other.

"With a Friend Like Harry," which picked up four Cesars (France's Oscar), including best director for Moll and best actor for Sergi Lopez in the title role, melds these influences into a seamless narrative that reverberates after the film is over. The assuredness of his direction is surprising because "Harry'-which opens Friday in Los Angeles-is only his second film.

"I found that in France, friends would call and tell me that they spent the whole evening discussing the film," he says, quietly pleased. "I can't fully explain why that's so, because at a certain point you don't know the reasons for everything you did, or why you shot certain scenes in a certain way. But I find that if you can explain everything you see in a film, it's closed. This way it leaves the door open for the viewer." "Harry" is certainly a good topic for discussion because its relatively straightforward story line is rife with undercurrents. Michel, a beleaguered family man (Laurent Lucas) runs into Harry, who claims to be a former schoolmate. Michel doesn't remember him, though, strangely other members of his family do (something that's never fully explained in the film). Harry, who is independently wealthy, slowly insinuates himself into Michel's life and begins casually eliminating people he thinks are getting in his friend's way.

The story, which Moll co-wrote with an old film-school colleague, Gilles Marchand, derives from his experience as the father of two young daughters. "It was quite a change for me," Moll says of fatherhood. "I was not fully prepared. I never expected it to be so radical."

Unlike Hollywood movies, which often portray family life in idyllic-if sometimes comic-terms, Moll's vision has a ring of reality. Michel's three daughters are not "little geniuses or little angels," he says, noting that's how children are often depicted in movies. They are willful and often try their father's patience. Parenting has its rewards in "Harry," but there's also a price the parents pay in loss of freedom and sheer exhaustion.

For Michel, after an arduous day of parenting, Harry appears almost like an apparition, at a roadside rest stop. "He's like a fantasy, a man who has wealth, no responsibilities and all the time in the world," says Moll, in sharp contrast to Michel who is "stuck in everyday life."

Taking a cue from Hitchcock that the more interesting the villain the better the story, Moll's Harry is an ingratiating, seductive presence, jovial and generous, flaunting his sexual prowess with his ripe, appropriately named girlfriend, Plum. In contrast, Michel is sullen and quiet and has no physical contact with his wife. Harry emerges as the dark side of Michel's unconscious, but at the outse the is clearly sympathetic.

Originally, Moll was going to tell his story as a realistic drama. But after the failure of his debut film in 1994-the similarly themed drama "Intimacy," an adaptation of a Jean-Paul Sartre story, which received respectful reviews but flopped at the box office-he chose to go the suspense route.

Moll notes: "It's a genre which is familiar and has great appeal to audiences." It was a fortuitous decision, he adds, broadening the film so it works on both the conscious and subconscious levels.

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