“Poison Friends” revives a rare pleasure of moviegoing: articulacy. Ten years ago Phillip Lopate diagnosed a “Dumbing Down of American Movies,” and the disproportionate praise given to reactionary “realism” in recent indies suggests that, as expectations shrivel, things have gotten stupider across the board. But “Poison Friends,” written by frequent Arnaud Desplechin scenarists Emmanuel Bordieu and Marcia Romano, defies the tendency, investing the same raucous humanity into the world of ideas that marked the academic milieu of Desplechin’s “My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument.”
From a packed University lecture hall on the first day of class, three students are winnowed out; two are newcomers, Eloi (Malik Zidi), son of a successful authoress, and slight, wincing Alexandre (Alexandre Steiger); they arrive late, disrupt the professor, can’t find a seat. The last, Andre (Thibault Vincon), is already in his element; he has an established rapport with the teacher, and is relaxed before his peers when speaking forbiddingly on the function of the critic, quoting the Viennese writer Karl Kraus: “Why do some people write? Because they are too weak not to.” Eloi and Alexandre are immediately smitten in that certain homosocial academic manner, starting on their way to becoming acolytes in Andre’s cult of personality (the movie is dead-on whenever dealing with the insecurities of young people fumbling at creation for the first time, and their hunger for approbation).
Vincon’s Andre Morney is a real “type” that I’ve never seen represented with such clarity: the intellectual bully. The film’s inscribed audience is a reasonably educated one, and in that crowd many will have known an Andre Mornay, and some will have been him. He wields opinions for blunt force; his followers, who’ve read less widely, who haven’t the confidence to bolster their own opinions, fall in lockstep behind this dormitory dictator. But Andre’s preternatural genius – his personal library requires an “annex,” every inch of wallspace occupied by books – is his tragedy. Lucidly aware of Greatness, Mornay holds writing to a litmus test that divides everything between Vanity and Necessity, a process he applies systematically to the world (in the funniest of many blithely nasty moments, he asks a girlfriend dressed to leave about her “quirky” hat: “Is that necessary?”). It’s a killing aesthetic standard – an underclassman holding the expectations of a Master – and the largesse of his personality extends that excruciating self-criticism onto others, enforcing the destruction of their “unnecessary” literary pretensions. Per Kraus: “Nothing is more horrible than my self in the mirror of hysteria,” and Andre is certifiably pathological; his piled, tangled mane is the visualization of an extroverted, exhibitionist intellect.
There’s a murkiness to the filmmaking – it’s consistently underlit, and the story’s timeline is rather ambiguous – but Vincon’s performance guides one through like a burning beacon. There is no attempt to psychoanalyze or explain Andre; of background, sexual hang-ups, inner monologue, we see only as much as his public persona shows. He is almost always smiling, and his pupils glisten with impish glee when he’s on the attack (when one hanger-on secretly publishes, he gives him what can only be described as an intellectual beat-down); Vincon, in his first leading role, is an arresting University Prometheus, magnificently active, always scuttling away from definition, brushing by comedy, pathos, arrogance, tenderness, triumph, and tragedy.
Such knotted contradictions befit a film that takes Kraus, master of the doubled-back “half-truth” aphorism, as its patron author. Though “Poison Friends” is the story of Andre Mornay’s comeuppance, his criticisms haunt after he’s vanquished: Eloi’s novel, once trashed at his mentor’s behest, is published – but is it necessary, or just nepotism? When Andre erases his girlfriend’s story from her computer, it’s a ghastly violation, but her first sentence really is appalling. That the only Great Work herein may be the one Andre will never write is but one of the film’s ingenious dilemmas.
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.]