Svengali U

A self-appointed intellectual guru poisons the academic well in psych-thriller

Poison Friends, written and directed by Emmanuel Bourdieu, is a literary film about literary pretensions. Elusive, arch, and very French, Bourdieu's second feature (which had its local premiere at the 2006 New York Film Festival) presents a clique of oversophisticated Paris university students—all passionately involved in articulating themselves. The first day of classes, Eloi (Malik Zidi) and his friend Alexandre (Alexandre Steiger) come under the spell of the charismatic André (Thibault Vinçon), a classmate who delivers an impromptu disquisition on "necessary writing" that amazes the sullen lecture hall and prompts the formidably dyspeptic professor (comic actor Jacques Bonnaffé) to pronounce him brilliant.

A mischievous, androgynous, ridiculously self-assured know-it-all, given to quoting Karl Kraus (people write "because they are too weak not to write"), André assigns himself the responsibility of managing his hopelessly impressed disciples' academic (and amorous) careers. Alexandre's theatrical aspirations are diverted from playwriting to acting; the indecisive Eloi, who has ambitions to write fiction and whose mother is a well-known novelist, is steered toward undertaking a dissertation on James Ellroy. ("He's the great one," André declares with a soon familiar tone that brooks no disagreement.)

André is a cop as well as a mentor. He takes it upon himself to harass another student who has had the effrontery to publish a short story. But even as this bullying meta-writer manipulates his followers in a scenario of his own devising, events take a turn beyond his control. The professor rejects André's thesis and André apparently departs Paris for Berkeley, leaving his two followers to carry on the legacy.

Bourdieu wrote two of Arnaud Desplechin's trickiest movies— My Sex Life . . . or How I Got into an Argumentand Esther Kahn—and Poison Friends manages a similar tightrope act. The movie is largely unclassifiable—at once a psychological study, an exceedingly dry comedy, and a moral tale in which stories are purloined and frauds perpetrated.

Poison Friends's humor derives in part from the seriousness with which the principals take both their vocations, as well as André's confident pronouncements: "Trust me, shallow modernism is in." So is the art of the bluff. Not for nothing did this movie open the International Critics' Week (and win its grand prize) last year at Cannes; Poison Friends may be all talk, but it's cut like an action flick.

 
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