Thursday, August 20, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 7: Death By Cribbing

One of the interesting and pleasant things about French cinema is that so many of its stars wind up cross-polinating other countries' movies. France has been lending money and talent to foreign countries for years. Thus it's not at all surprising to see how many European movies wind up in French because not only does so much French cash go into their movies but the people who're going to wind up watching it are primarily going to be French. The French have long been sympathetic towards other culture's need to produce films even if domestic audiences don't give a damn about their output. Hence why it's not at all surprising to see the similarities between Belgian director Fabrice Du Welz' Calvaire from Belgium and Dominik Moll's French thriller With A Friend Like Harry. Both are simple enough, made on modest budgets, borrow stylistically from Hitchcock, have Laurent Lucas in the lead and both are in French. Their differences are of course, many, and it's a comfort to know that French movies can stray perilously close to one another and still offer two different kinds of fright.

With A Friend Like Harry
by Dominik Moll

Michel, his wife Claire, and their three cute but noisy little girls are headed to their vacation house. They stop at a roadside stand (which, let's just be clear is always how home invasion films start) and while Michel washes his face in the bathroom, a large man with an eerie smile starts staring at him. After a moment he introduces himself as an old high school chum called Harry Ballestero. When Michel greets his revelation with perplexity, Harry recalls a lot of very specific incidents that should jog his memory, like when they collided during a sporting event and Harry lost a tooth, but nothing doing. Harry also says that he met Michel's father, who did His dental work at his home office. Michel concedes that he forgets things often and so they walk to the parking lot and Michel introduces his new-old chum to his family. Harry introduces Michel and his family to his improbably attractive fiance and then suggests that he buy everyone dinner. Vacation plans what they are, Michel and Claire are forced to decline but they'd be more than happy to host Harry and his fiance at their home for the night after they're nicely brow-beaten into offering as much. A few hours later they're sitting down to dinner.

Harry wastes no time revealing personal information that seems designed to both embarass the shit out of Michel in front of his wife and prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the two went to school together. He recites some poetry that Michel published in their high school arts magazine, talks about a story he wrote and only showed to friends, and then name-drops a girl they both had sex with. Thoroughly wierded out, Michel and Claire retire to bed. The next day Claire goes to buy medicine for Iris, their youngest, and her car breaks down. Harry insists on coming along and once the vehicle's been towed he drives Claire to a car dealership and buys her a gaudy new SUV. As his fiance puts it Harry's motto is "a solution for everything". So when Michel's nagging parents show up and practically give him an anxiety attack, Harry leaves at high speeds, furious. That night he goes to Michel's parents house and tells them that Michel is in trouble and that if they want to help him, they'd better come quickly. It comes as no surprise whatsoever when he runs them off the road into a ravine. Their deaths bring about some consequences beside the obvious. First, Michel's slovenly brother shows up and he seems poised to be prove just as problematic as his parents, which Harry picks up on immediately. Next, Michel, in rifling through his parents' things finds the poem and the short story that Harry recited at dinner. Didn't Harry say he'd been to his parents' home to have his dental work done? Isn't there a very real possibility that Harry is just some obsessive psychopath who poses a threat to Michel's loved ones?

You can almost always tell a film that owes a debt to the master of suspense when describing the 'plot' means neccesarily describing everything that happens. You cannot simply say "he must thwart the villain and save the girl" because the hero will undoubtedly go through so many twists and turns in the road that by the end, it becomes completely for them to have acted the way they did. Alfred Hitchcock used to get a lot of mileage out of making ordinary people do extraordinary things because of the extraordinary circumstances. So his movies would often become strings of events that build on the seriocity of the situation. He did this on major studio money but you don't need it to make a convincing Hitchcockian thriller. Hence, today's films. With A Friend Like Harry looks and sounds great but I can't picture it having cost the usual arm and a leg that an equivalent stateside thriller would. The thing I like best about it is that it hedges its bets on no-names like Laurent Lucas and Sergi López, who are both excellent. Everyone is a force, a mood, more than just a character. López, who you might know as the villain from Pan's Labyrinth, is pretty excellent because his menace lies in his apparent inability to break a sweat. He's always calm, the perfect foil to Lucas' mess of a doubting husband. And though both of the women give great performances, all you need to do is look at them and you can intimate their meaning to Michel. He looks at Mathilde Seinger's (Emmanuelle's sister) Claire and all his doubts and worries come out, even though he loves her. He looks at Sophie Guillemin, Harry's fiance, and the allure of a better life is given curvy personification. That's the backbone, the one sentence synopsis as it were, of this movie.

That's not to sell it's other elements short, but when you get down to it, this is a very simple film. Not a horror film per se, nor is it the black comedy that it gets so often written off as. It's in between somewhere and it has some real heft to it at times (when Harry drives off after being embarrassed at dinner being one such moment). Shades of Georges Sluizer's The Vanishing rear their head in the conclusion at which point Moll proves himself just as dark and manipulative a director as Hitchcock. He manages to give the audience exactly what they want without the repercussions they expect. The strength of this film, as in so many aged thrillers, is that we watch a man with morals slowly become corrupted in order to fight for the status quo that his mild manner has afforded him. In this case, we watch a rather ordinary thriller with its usual arc and ups and downs giving us insight into the enigmatic nice-guy villain but instead of letting the nice guy slide on self-defence we see him succeed with an uncharacteristic act of bravery that is at once understandable but way too evil because it falls right in line with the advice Harry's been giving him the whole film. So basically Harry would kill to help Michel, who he's obsessed with for some reason, and Michel winds up doing something just as vile in order to get Harry to stop helping him. He fights for the middle class life that he earned rather than accept the privilege that Harry offers him, which is bold and cowardly at the same time of both Michel and of Dominik Moll. Moll's insistence that everyone's content to be poor isn't exactly Horatio Algier, but it's not unreasonable, I suppose but I would have liked an ending that required more than one kind of bravery from our lead. If the whole story had the morally compromised immediacy of the conclusion, this would have been a much more interesting film, but it's still pretty good.

by Fabrice Du Welz
Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas again) is a lounge singer at an old folks home. He does one last show before hitting the road for a christmas gig miles away but before he can go, one of the old women he performs for finds him when he's alone and confesses that she has erotic designs on him. He skirts the awkward encounter curtly and leaves her wallowing in regret (she hands him a bunch of nude photos before he can get clear of her). He doesn't get far on the road before a rain storm starts and his van breaks down. He walks down a path through the woods and thanks to a confused young man called Boris (who's out in the storm looking for his lost dog) finds an inn, whose slightly strange innkeeper Bartel agrees to take him in and tow the van and fix it the following day. Did I say slightly strange? Ok, the man is fucking crazy, it just takes the few days that Stevens spendss in his company to find out just how off-the-deep-end the man truly is.

The next day Stevens has plenty of time to kill as Bartel says he'll need the whole day to fix the van. Bartel also tells his guest to stay away from the village, as they don't take kindly to 'artists', whatever the fuck that means. Stevens encounters Boris again who still claims to be looking for a lost dog. I'm thinking that dog never existed, what do you think? After talking to Boris for a minute, he stumbles upon an old barn and finds a gaggle of enormous men crowded around the youngest of them as he tries to have sex with a sluggish-looking pig. Why Stevens doesn't go running at high speeds screaming at high volumes is quite beyond me. When Bartel tells him over dinner that he needs some parts delivered to him to fix the van, we get the feeling that no one in this hellhole much cares if Marc Stevens ever sings in front of a crowd of horny old ladies ever again. That night, Bartel, between babbling incessantly and crying over his estranged wife, learns that Stevens is a singer. Not only does that mean that they're both 'artists' as Bartel was once a stand-up comedian (I'll believe that when I see it) but it also means that Bartel wants a display. His wife, who now quite understandably left him, used to sing. Stevens quietly delivers a few lines of an old song and it clearly does something to Bartel's head. The next morning the van's been destroyed and Bartel clubs Marc in the head when he asks questions, puts him in some of his wife's old clothes and drags him into the middle of the woods. He has an easy enough time escaping at first, but when Bartel goes into the village to say "keep off the lounge singer, he's mine", it has the opposite of its intended effect meaning that even if Stevens does manage to get out of Bartel's grasp, there's a group of very demented villagers who I'm sure prefer Stevens to a barn animal.

Directors in the 21st century, no matter how microscopic a budget they work on, have the benefit of technology on their side. That means that even a film like Calvaire or The Ordeal, whose greatest expense was either Laurent Lucas or character actor Philippe Nahon, can look amazing. The film's look fits its creepy backwoods subject matter perfectly and its one of the many tricks that Fabrice Du Welz has up his sleeve. First are the performances. Lucas was already good at looking confused and stressed (see above) and Philippe Nahon, who plays the head villager as well as the villain in Haute Tension, Brotherhood of the Wolf and a bit part in Irréversible, and his crowd need only stand up to look menacing but Du Welz gets a little more out of them than they might otherwise have given. He gives three dimensions to even the film's creepiest fringe characters so that though you're unnerved, you can almost always see their side of things. Sympathy, even if it is a dancing, alienating sympathy, isn't always found in a film of this character so it was kind of nice to see that it wasn't Marc Stevens superhero battling the dregs of Walloon as these films so often turn into. It was the even-handedness of its descent into the mire that makes this a lot of fun.

The only real problem is that a film like this has but two possible outcomes and only so many ways to kill time before our director lets us know which we'll be receiving. That's where the Hitchcock comes in. There's a Psycho-style dialogue between Bartel and Stevens (modeled off the discussion Marion Crane has with Norman Bates over dinner about stuffing birds). Then there are the reveals, which are Psycho-esque, as well; in fact Bartel does all but stab Stevens in the shower. Dressing him up in Bartel's wifes clothing is sort of a reverse-Psycho, which again, is a nice inversion of our expectations of this sort of thing. These fun little inserts of Du Welz' heroes make this a very interesting outing, and though I dearly love weird little traipsing-through-the-woods movies, I also know that there is only so much you can do once you're in the woods. There's almost necessarily a paucity of action after a certain point and that doesn't derail the film, it just means the film is only so exciting. Like Ils, there's nothing wrong with it, I just want a little more than a film like this can give me. But note again that though both Moll and Du Welz were inspired heavily by Hitchcock, that both made movies with simple enough premises, that both put Laurent Lucas in approximately the same kind of role, that overbearing psychopaths are the villain, that they take place primarily in out-of-the-way places, Calvaire and With A Friend Like Harry are as different as night and day. A little talent goes a long way.

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