Movie review: 'Poison Friends'

3 stars (out of four)

Movies set in academia, such as "The Paper Chase," often have a tendency toward self-congratulatory intellectualism and a fixation on collegiate romance. "Poison Friends" (or "Les Amities Malefiques") is instead a psychological drama co-written and directed by ex-philosophy professor Emmanuel Bourdieu. It's a movie so canny about its subject that it can take its learning for granted--sketching its backdrop and characters with precision and closely revealing a fascinating psychological turbulence created by one of them, the charismatic and manipulative star literature student Andre Morney (Thibault Vincon).

Andre is a handsome chap with an impudent smile who dominates his fellow students Eloi Duhaut (Malik Zidi) and Alexandre Pariente (Alexandre Steiger), demanding absolute loyalty from them. He is also the favorite of his opinionated, haggard-looking professor, Mortier (Jacques Bonnaffe), a maverick who specializes in American crime novelist James Ellroy ("L.A. Confidential"). Andre even dictates Eloi's love life, matching him with sweet, pensive fellow writer Marguerite (Natacha Regnier).

But Andre is also a bit of a bully and a sham, ignoring his thesis to boss around the others, slapping Mortier to coerce a degree out of him and finally disappearing altogether, leaving behind his bewildered acolytes: Eloi, who is a budding novelist, and Alexandre, who switches from playwriting to acting at Andre's behest.

"Poison Friends" won three awards at the last Cannes Film Festival, including the Grand Prize of International Critics' Week. It's intellectual without being dry, dramatic without bombast, smart without posturing. Its characters and milieu are very well drawn, and Andre is one of the more intriguing and convincing fictional creations in recent film. At the end of "Friends," one still wants to know more about him, to plumb his life and darkness. As for Bourdieu, he's in the fine tradition of the literate French film realists, like Eric Rohmer, Francois Truffaut or Bourdieu's ex-collaborator Arnaud Desplechin. He's a cineaste who avoids false glamor and creates characters who think, read and write--even if, like Andre, they can also be fakes.


'Poison Friends'

Directed by Emmanuel Bourdieu; screenplay by Bourdieu, Marcia Romano; photographed by Yorick Le Saux; edited by Benoit Quinon; music by Gregoire Hetzel; produced by Mani Martazavi, David Mathieu-Mahias, Le Saux. In French, with English subtitles. A Strand Releasing release; opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Running time: 1:47. No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for adult themes and sexuality).

Eloi Duhaut - Malik Zidi

Andre Morney - Thibault Vincon

Alexandre Pariente - Alexandre Steiger

Florence Duhaut - Dominique Blanc

Marguerite - Natacha Regnier

Professeur Mortier - Jacques Bonnaffe

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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