"Funny and scary," quoth Quentin Tarantino, "two great tastes that taste great together!" He was referring to his own Pulp Fiction, but the quip could be applied equally to the dark-horse art-house hit of the moment, the refreshingly Tarantino-free With a Friend Like Harry. Everybody's buzzing it as France's answer to Strangers on a Train. No wonder: It's about a stranger (Harry, played to giddy perfection by Sergi Lopez) who, bumping into a man on a road trip, offers unrequested help in bumping off pesky relatives, as in Hitchcock's film. The "fat bastard" (as Strangers on a Train co-writer Raymond Chandler called Hitch to his face) is director Dominik Moll's favorite director, and he admits he named his hero Harry to evoke The Trouble With Harry (as well as Harry Lime and Woody Allen's Harry Block). This Harry's surname is Balestrero–Henry Fonda's character in The Wrong Man.

But just put Hitchcock out of your mind, OK? Because With a Friend Like Harry is no movie brat's bloodless Hitch homage. Moll went straight to the source to make this picture: He steeped himself in Patricia Highsmith, author of the original Strangers on a Train and the novels about Tom Ripley, a killer who steals his best friend's identity and traffics in other people's fraudulent art (a role played with stony gravitas by Dennis Hopper in The American Friend, slickly by Alain Delon in Purple Noon, in gay earnest by Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley and no doubt innovatively by John Malkovich in the forthcoming Ripley's Game). Moll's character Harry is like Highsmith's pragmatic psychos, and he's got a ripe, Ripleyesquely eccentric obsession with the high school buddy he accidentally reunites with, Michel (Laurent Lucas, a pouty mouth drooping beneath a pudding-bowl haircut and dead eyes). With a Friend Like Harry scores by echoing Highsmith's tone (muted horror, deadpan glee), her agnosticism about human motives and her style, as implacable as a sleepwalker in a meticulously real world.

When Highsmith first wrote a Ripley novel, she recalled, "I felt that Ripley was writing it–it just came out." That's just how With a Friend Like Harry unspools–as if Harry directed it, leaving us as passively fascinated as his ambiguous victim, Michel. There's a hint of what's up in the credit sequence, an aerial shot of the beat-up car of Michel and his wife, Claire (Mathilde Seigner), rolling down the hot highway with no air conditioning on an anhedonic holiday with their three authentically squalling toddlers. The highway railings look like film sprockets–Michel and Claire don't know it, but their vacation is trapped inside somebody else's movie! The titles cast shadows on the car and road. The whole film is a contest between the quotidian life of harried parenthood and Harry's cold shadowland of the instant fulfillment of every writer's secret wish.

Michel is a thwarted writer, you see. He precariously supports his burdensome clan by teaching French to the Japanese in Paris, but in school he wrote the ambitious, passionately numbskulled poem "The Dagger in the Skin of Night" and the abortive sci-fi novella The Flying Monkeys, about gibbons with propellers on their heads who "did chores and spied on people." He hasn't thought about his diaper-dampened literary dreams in years, but when Michel stops at a gas station and Harry recognizes him, Harry forcibly reminds him of literature's loss.

It's an uncomfortable scene: The men's room walls seem to close in, Harry's urgency is odd, he seems alien–a Spanish actor in a French flick, though his performance won him a Cesar, the French Oscar, for Best Actor. Michel has no memory of his alleged classmate. As Harry itemizes their shared past, you feel sweaty and mesmerized, like Michel. Harry has puckish little parentheses tugging at the corners of his mouth; his smile is like a sunlamp. The windshield wipers on his spotless Mercedes no doubt go, "NICE-guy-NICE-guy." Yet his affability bear-hugs you. Harry makes like a good cop with a bad cop's will to power. Yet what writer can resist someone who quotes you from the school lit mag verbatim, urges you to be true to your gift, hands out cash like a one-man MacArthur Foundation (Harry's rich) and offers your testy wife and keening kids a ride in a car renowned for silence and climate control?

The scene walks the scary-funny razor with weightless aplomb. Pretty soon Harry and his young squeeze, Plum (Sophie Guillemin), a ruby-lipped, passive pinup, get themselves invited to the picturesquely decrepit country manse Michel is refurbishing on a shoestring. Moll, an inexperienced director trying out the enchanting toy of Cinemascope, gets the goods: That mansion looks sensational against the looming woods and Magritte sky, a dark stone god brooding with one window ablaze like an angry eye. These shots, plus aerial shots of sinuous roads engulfed by greenery and driver's-eye views of the car approaching the mansion by night, are as resonant as the more pompous tableaux that introduce each chapter of Breaking the Waves.

Inside, the manse is as psychically cramped as the men's room where Harry met Michel. It's an obscurely threatening place and also a place of silliness, like the absurdly low-ceilinged office in Being John Malkovich; when Michel finds Harry raiding the fridge late at night–Harry boasts that he always eats an egg after each orgasm–we might as well be in Fawlty Towers. Many shots skillfully exploit the anxiety potential of narrow hallways without looking like self-conscious lifts straight from the Fat Bastard.

The whole house is drab, barren, ramshackle–except the bathroom, which Michel's parents redecorated in blinding fuchsia, to surprise him. And control him. Moll shows us Michel on the phone, ineffectually protesting the imposition of Dad's bad taste. Not that Michel lacks bad taste of his own; he just needs somebody to push him around. Dad (Dominique Rozan) is an amusing patriarchal caricature, an impenitent groper of dames, even his daughter-in-law, and he's a mad dentist as well. When Michel visits their apartment, Dad insists on drilling his teeth in the den. Apparently, Michel won't be jawboning his father into any power reapportionment anytime soon. Back in his own home, when Michel decides to resuscitate his neglected novella, he curls up in that fuchsia bathroom like a fetus and writes all night. Michel is a slave to his ambition and dream of freedom.

Life in the mansion with Harry as Boswell in residence has a dreamy quality–when Michel has a narcissistic dream about the flying monkey from his novella, it's no less creepy-comic than his waking hours. To keep it all from lapsing into abstract satirical fantasy, Moll buttresses the dreamlike scenes with rigorously realistic snippets of domestic life. Claire evinces a new interest in Michel–she'd never suspected him of poetry–and even bonds with Plum. The girls are crazy for Plum, who yearns for kids of her own. "I wish I were a normal person," mourns Plum. This is affecting, because up to now Plum has registered so strongly as a walking symbol, an inflatable ecstasy receptacle, a lurid David Lynch critter. To find out she was human all along is appalling. Suddenly, Harry and his damn eggs don't seem so funny. At dinner, when Harry viciously puts down Plum and she leaves the table, we wince for real. Pain hurts, even if you're just a dimwitted symbol. It has dawned on Claire that Harry's influence is not wholly benign.

As Harry gets scarier, clearing out the human deadwood obstructing Michel's literary vocation, the movie starts to part company with its illustrious forebears. It gets more trivial as Harry's mental problems get more serious. Harry snickering and feinting and being unpredictable is unnerving; Harry howling mad isn't worth listening to. You want to throw a shoe at him. The sad fact is, every psycho is a sphinx without a secret, and only the greatest storytellers can concoct a narrative illusion that satisfies our craving for meaning where life provides none. Even if it's only to rub our noses, as haughty Highsmith does, in the meaninglessness of life and death, and the likelihood that God, if He's up there, evidently resembles Ripley.

Moll's implicit commentary on the nature of fiction and the ruthlessness of art is not a patch on Highsmith's. The movie ends like a firecracker that emits a respectable spurt of sparks instead of exploding. Maybe Moll just isn't interested in climaxes featuring what French critic Claude Chabrol called the "world of vertigo and paroxysm" that Hitchcock (and most Highsmith adapters) favor. Call me Anglo, but I could use more paroxysm here. Still, if With a Friend Like Harry is no match for Strangers on a Train cinematically, the Fat Bastard himself would admit it's better written and acted. The David Sinclair Whitaker score is solid (they say he composed for the Hammer horror movies), the use of Dolores Del Rio's 1928 song "Ramona" as Harry's leitmotif works, the editing rhythms are impeccable and the movie somehow manages to raise hopes sky-high, faintly disappoint and then linger in the back of your mind for days, an unremovable burr. It's a giggle and a brrrrr. By modern standards, it's a masterpiece.