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On a hot day in a highway gas station men's room, a man Michel doesn't recognize says they went to school together. He's Harry. He suggests they have a drink, so he and his girlfriend follow Michel and his family to their summer place. Michel is amazed when Harry quotes from memory a poem Michel wrote in school. Harry thinks Michel is a great writer, and he's distressed that Michel hasn't written in years. Harry stays awhile (since his father's death, he's a man of leisure) and sets out to eliminate distractions that might keep Michel from writing. First he buys Michel a car (with air conditioning) and then suspicious things happen. Michel picks up a pen, Harry is gratified, but he's not finished being Michel's self-appointed patron. Written by
'Harry' is a portrait of a marriage. Reviewers have pointed out the film's debt to Hitchcock - why do people always call films which 'borrow' the superficials (plot, music, characters, set-pieces etc.) Hitchcockian, when his true inheritors are directors like Godard and Marker? - but his oeuvre only contains two notable films about marriage, 'The Man who knew too much' and 'The Wrong Man'. These films show marriage cracking under the strain of some exterior threat.
'Harry' begins with a marriage already at crisis point - symbolically confined in an old car without air conditioning, driving towards a delapidated country house, young children bawling, mother unable to do anything, father getting increasingly frustrated, all seat-belted for greater entrapment. I remember it well. Laurent Lucas is the new Francois Cluzot, the grim, unhappy, modern man conspired against by circumstances that are not melodramatic, but everyday; financial, parents, frustrated ambitions etc.
If this is Hitchcock, it is a French version as mediated by Chabrol - there is the same contrast between the artificiality of the plot and the natural surroundings that stage it. This opening of a car, a family, classical music, the drive to a summer retreat, the intrusions of two strangers, remind me of another recent European thriller, Haneke's 'Funny Games'.
The film borrows from a lot of Hitchcockian sources - 'The Man who knew too much', 'Vertigo', 'Psycho', 'The Trouble with Harry' (in reverse), especially 'Strangers on a train' - Harry's character is sometimes more Highsmith than Hitchcock, a mixture of Tom Ripley and Dickie (here it is the rich man who wants to belong with the less well-off).
The meeting of Michel and Harry is signalled with HItchcockian criss-cross; ominously, in a public lavatory. There is a sense of magic or fairy tale here, as the two characters and their reflections reunite and fragment at the same time, suggesting a transformation scene, a switching of personalities and identities. It is at the moment when Michel feels most exasperation (and the need for gender security, in the male toilets) that Harry turns up, suggesting that he is Michel's double, an expression of his unconscious desires, somebody who will do what he wouldn't dare. This is the 'transference of guilt' narrative beloved of Hitchcock, one which found its purest expression in 'STrangers'.
There are some reasons why this contrivance does not carry the same weight here. Firstly, both characters are unpleasant and unlikely to win much audience support - 'STrangers' is so disturbing because the good guy is so cold, ruthless and unsympathetic, while the baddie seems vulnerable, and his motives are comprehensible. There are occasional attempts to suggest Harry's demons, as he screams in silence like a Francis Bacon painting. Michel, while never likable, is not calculating enough to provide an effective contrast. This blunts the transference of guilt - it is his wife, Claire, who resents his parents, who wishes for a bigger car etc. She also bears the film's misogyny, perhaps Hitchcockian, as she shows no sympathy towards her husband's creative endeavours (an attempt to regain childhood?), but as this only surfaces in the last ten minutes, it denies the plot frisson.
In the half-century since 'STrangers', Moll is still coy about homosexuality; although he never shows the much-alluded to heterosexual act, and engineers a number of encounters where a near-naked Harry and Michel discuss sexual prowess (to the point where Harry's eggs of virility become agent of Michel's creative fertility), there is no real sexual charge between them, making Harry look like a pervert trying to destroy the family, rather than showing a family stifling such urges in Michel. Hitchcock is more sympathetic to his lonely gays. He is also superior at creating narrative and suspense - Moll never makes his contrivances seem inevitable or plausible as his Master does, and after half an hour his film is slow-burning without becoming tense or exciting. The hallucinations and heavy ironies of the final quarter don't help.
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