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It's very easy to shock on the screen, says Dominik Moll, director of the French thriller, Harry, He is Here to Help; he gets much more fun out of creating tension by suggestion, he explains in this Q&A.

Your first feature, the highly acclaimed Intimacy, was a romance. Harry is a completely different genre!
Intimacy contained the idea of a character, in this case a girl, who interfered in a couple's life. Harry has a similar theme, but it's more driven by tension and suspense. It's part cliffhanger, part black comedy, in which scariness and entertainment go hand in hand.

Where did you get the idea of the Harry character appearing out of the blue?
When I first started thinking about the story, my girlfriend and I were in the throes of young parenthood. Our everyday life was in constant havoc due to our two little daughters: endless practical problems to solve, the lack of time and sleep, the irritation and exhaustion. There always comes a time when you can't take any more and you wonder out loud, "How the hell did I get myself into this mess?" I realised that most of my friends who had kids were going through roughly the same experience. That made me smile, and I wondered what would happen if a character suddenly came into my life who externalized all my doubts and frustrations and self-questioning and pursued them to their logical conclusion!

The script is very subtly written. You play with the audience. We shiver with fear and enjoyment at the same time!
I like films that frighten me but also make me enjoy being frightened, like Shining or The Birds. Harry's solutions are scary but also enjoyable. They're scary because they're criminal, but enjoyable because they're liberating. It was important not to give the game away too soon. The role of Harry, for example, had to be played by someone you like and feel you can trust. Sergi Lopez's affability brings a huge amount to the part. I don't like films where you can spot the bad guy at first sight and you're just waiting for awful things to happen. I'm not interested in assaulting the audience. I want to draw them into my film and make them enjoy it, even the scary scenes. For the record, I'm not encouraging anyone to "do a Harry" on his parents or his girlfriend! Recently, an actor admitted to me that he'd left his wife after seeing Intimacy. Here and now, I disclaim all responsibility for Harry!

The film opens on a couple driving in their car with their three little girls. The tension in the air as the situation deteriorates is viewed with lots of humour. Within seconds, the tone is set.
All of my memories of setting off on summer vacation are ghastly. When I was little, there were four of us kids in the back. In the traffic jams and sweltering heat, one of us was always sick! Obviously, it conflicts with the idea we like to have of vacations being all about pleasure and relaxation. I think everybody has more or less been there and can identify with the scene and laugh at it. I love my daughters, but there are always times when you want to strangle your offspring! Like when you're sitting in the traffic and one of them is kicking the back of your seat and the other one's screaming because she left her Barbie doll at home. ...

Michel and Harry went to the same high school twenty years before. When they meet again, they seem worlds apart.
Michel has a pragmatic, live-and-let-live attitude. He thinks he does a good job of handling his everyday life and tries to avoid conflict, be it with his wife, his parents or anyone else. Harry has a much more drastic philosophy: every problem has a solution. Not just a quick fix, but a solution that thoroughly eradicates the problem. Harry is disappointed to find his old classmate Michel bogged down in petty hassles, and determines to help him. When I started writing, I had no idea that Harry's solutions would be so drastic. As I went further, urged on by my co-scriptwriter Gilles Marchand, I found myself getting caught up in my own game.

What was it about Harry's personality that interested you most?
His sincerity. It was the first thing I said to Sergi about his character. Harry is all of a piece. He is sincere in his love for Plum and his wish to help Michel. He never acts cynically or manipulatively. There is nothing perverse about him. At high school, he developed a kind of fixation on Michel and his "talent" as a writer. He wants to make Michel happy. Unlike Michel, Harry isn't a man of compromise. To that extent, he's rather . . . childlike. He'll do anything to get what he wants.

In Harry, as in Intimacy, you pay especially close and ironic attention to the relationships between your characters.
I'm interested in the complexity of human relationships. At the same time, I prefer to describe them with a detachment that leaves room for humor . It doesn't stop me caring about all my characters; they move me and I defend and understand them. If not, I wouldn't be interested in filming them. I like characters with more than one facet.

Harry and Plum make an odd couple!
There's a sincerity in their love. Plum is a little bit the stereotype bimbo who is kept by a wealthy man. I like to play with cliches, letting their true character emerge as the story unfolds. Plum is no fool. In the scene where she's depilating her legs and she asks "When can we go to the Matterhorn?", she knows what she's doing. She senses that Harry is slipping away from her. It's the pivotal scene in their relationship: we can feel Plum yearning for a normal family life, while Harry is bent on pursuing his agenda with Michel.

Harry is surprised that Michel is still so influenced by his parents. .
Relationships with parents are always peculiar. Even when you're grown up, you're still a child in your parents' eyes, with all the side-effects it can entail. People handle it in different ways. You can split with them completely or put up with it. ...

-And find yourself with a bright pink bathroom!
Now that I'm a father, I realize how much power we have over our children. It's horrific! For some people, the death of their parents can be a very liberating experience. Grown up at last! After seeing the film, one of the producers said to me "Send me Harry, I want to introduce him to my parents!"

Harry is also a movie about creativity. To be able to write again, Michel has to undergo a string of ordeals: he has to confront his past, his doubts, bereavement, the blank page The film could be one long dream of Michel's, interspersed with nightmares. Can it be seen as a metaphor?
I wouldn't want to deny anyone their interpretation of the film. On the contrary, it's fun! What matters most is that the story works on its own. From then on, you can read it on other levels. Through Harry , Michel' s teenage ambitions come back to haunt him. As teenagers, we have all sorts of dreams that we hope will come true, and then they shrink or disappear as the realities of life take over. We've all abandoned some of our childhood dreams.

Is there another possible reading of your film: Harry is Michel's sub-conscious, his "id", wanting to live out all his urges, always following the pleasure principle, while Michel is the "superego", inhibited and bound by rules and desires of others?
Absolutely. This reading appeared to me while I was writing but I didn't try to theorize about it. Harry does indeed act as a catalyst on Michel' s doubts and desires. You can also imagine that Harry is a "projection" or "invention" of Michel's, because he needed him just at that moment. There's a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde side there.

You don't show any violence and yet it's there, suggested with such subtlety that the viewer feels it with unusual intensity.
We're used to seeing violence in every shape and form. It's become so banal that it's lost all its meaning. Gruesome scenes designed to thrill the audience leave me cold. It's very easy to shock. I get much more fun out of creating tension by suggestion, not having blood spurting all over the screen.

You direct your actors with similar restraint.
I don't like hysteria. If the scene is strong already, there's no point. I prefer restrained performances. I ask the actors to keep it in, rather than let it all out. It doesn't make their emotions any less intense.

You 're always one step aside from reality . . .
I'm not interested in naturalism, even though I can enjoy films that get off on it, like the very beautiful films of Cassavetes. I always aim to keep a certain distance and humour. I feel closer to the English school of acting than the Actors' Studio. I love the story about Marathon Man. Dustin Hoffman had to appear on the scene completely out of breath because he'd been jogging, so he ran around the block thirty times and arrived on the set gasping for breath. Sir Laurence Olivier was surprised and asked him what was up. "I've been running to get out of breath," said Dustin. To which Sir Laurence very Britishly replied, "Why don't you just act?"

Published February 1, 2001

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