It's the start of a new semester at college, and Eloi (Malik Zidi) and Alexandre (Alexandre Pariente) quickly befriend the charismatic André (Thibault Vinçon), who provides non-stop lessons in life to his new underlings. All are enveloped in the literary world, but Eloi and Alexandre quickly seem to doubt their own gut and surrender to André's subtle persuasion. According to him, everyone writes something--diaries, poems, stories--but most of it is meaningless, a theory he adopts from famed Austrian writer Karl Kraus. "Why do some people write?" he asks Eloi, echoing Kraus. "Because they're too weak not to write."
Soon, the power of André's words grows mighty: Eloi is convinced he isn't worthy enough to be a writer, trying to suppress a manuscript that his mother (Dominique Blanc), herself an author ripe for André's mind games, has submitted for publication; girlfriend Marguerite (Natacha Régnier) tries to hide her own novel for fear of ridicule; and Alexandre allows André to fabricate his application to the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts ("This time it's okay to be pathetic").
Alexandre wants to get into playwriting and acting, and his notes and monologues keenly parallel the story in Poison Friends. His upcoming drama? Slander, Insult, Deception and Vulgarity. And listen to him rattle off a Nero speech from the play Britannicus...it's a nice touch that hints at what's to come.
André takes advantage of every opportunity to patronize or criticize, whether it's something simple ("Is that necessary? That hat?") or serious ("It's crap...narcissistic crap. Even the first line was crap!"), and convinces his friends to do things they clearly shouldn't--having them possibly sabotage potential relationships. "Jesus, I have to teach you guys everything!" André exclaims, shortly after saying, "I'm sorry, but I can't stand arrogance," where I thought for sure he would wink at the camera.
But soon, it becomes clear that André isn't all that he appears, and while his words carry swagger, the truth behind it reveals a different story: Clearly, his bark is much worse than his bite. After the relationship with his thesis sponsor falls apart, André literally slaps the professor into giving him his diploma, then tells his pals he's off to Berkeley for a special exchange program that will have him updating the Fitzgerald archives. He leaves, but his friends still remain under his spell, but for how long? Soon, a visit from André sets the wheels in motion for an intense conclusion.
It's easy to get caught up in the intellectual speak that permeates much of the script here. When André rattles off missives like "Trust me, shallow modernism is in...bourgeois lap it up," or "You've just added pedantry to pretension," you might roll your eyes and dismiss this as French psychobabble. But that's exactly what Bourdieu (and co-writer Marcia Romano) intended: to use high-brow musings on life and literature as a vehicle for exploring the power of words and peer pressure at one of the most crucial times in a person's life. This isn't a film about upper-crusty books or art or social circles, it's a universal tale about people and the need for acceptance, applicable to any person in any social class.
I initially was annoyed with the victims under André's spell, because they seemed so easily influenced, so eager to impress, so resistant to speak out and stand up for themselves. Why should I care about them? But then it clicked...and I remembered when I was that lump of clueless clay that eventually (thankfully) snapped out of someone's spell and became unafraid to speak up. Everyone, no matter where they are from, can relate, because everyone has known someone just like André.
But this film--which won the Critics Week Grand Prize at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival--is still uniquely French. While there are obvious differences, the structure reminded me of recent French efforts like Jacques Audiard's The Beat That My Heart Skipped and Denis Dercourt's The Page Turner. This is a slow-building cerebral thriller with mounting tension. When the curtain rose on the final act, I was glued to the screen, eagerly anticipating every second, my heart literally racing. It had nothing to do with action, and everything to do with words--and the fascination with how human nature would play out. And in this day and age of film, that's quite an accomplishment.