Les Amitiés maleáfiques
Review by Jenny Jediny
Posted on 24 October 2006
Source Strand Releasing 35mm print
Features: The 44th New York Film Festival
Poison Friends is an elegant little anomaly among the countless films devoted to university life, particularly the activities of white, upper-class heterosexual men. There are the ubiquitous parties, women, and late nights spent smoking and debating, but the fuel motivating this particular group is fierce competition and conversation surrounding the Parisian literary world. For what sounds like a musty topic relegated to the Merchant Ivory label, a surprising amount of tension builds steadily in Emmanuel Bourdieu’s ode to a privileged and somewhat unattainable social clique that shines with a luster once attributed to the Vicious Circle.
Although Bourdieu introduces this world to us through the eyes of naïve playwright and new student Alexandre, it is the competition between his colleagues, Eloi and André, that carries the strongest wave of hostility throughout the film. The leader of this small pack, André impresses his fellow students, established professor and assumedly the audience with an impromptu class lecture. Rakish and incredibly well spoken, André captures the attention and imagination of this group, particularly Eloi, who listens to André’s rant on the role of the critic with rapt interest; André’s argument, and consistent, assumed role within his circle of friends is a critical one, as he finds writers weak and unworthy, publishing work they know is drivel for their own selfish satisfaction and subsequent public attention. Theoretically, it forms an interesting debate, and André is the choice spokesman, with his conviction and rather charming, if cruel smile.
André practices these harsh verbal tactics among his friends, dismissing Alexandre’s plays with severe disdain, and almost violently attacking another friend’s published work on metaphysics, ostracizing the author and essentially trashing the piece, but, as he declares, only in the name of good art. Eloi, the son of a famous Parisian novelist, admires André so much that he chucks out a roughly completed novel, having convinced himself he simply isn’t good enough. A rather decent and humble individual, Eloi finds it difficult to shed his fears of André’s censure, instead preferring to be André’s pet, despite the rather rude treatment he receives. A difficult concept for its believability, this blind acceptance of André plays out rather smoothly, as Poison Friends manages to exude the excitement that forms out of such bitter academic camaraderie.
Expectedly, André is not all he appears, and there are twists that have been labeled Hitchcockian by some critics. But Hitchcock once noted “dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.” While the film is suspenseful, it is not nearly to the degree of a Hitchcockian thriller, despite performances that greatly contribute to the tension that does develop. I would prefer to compare it to a film such as The Talented Mr. Ripley, mainly due to its cool, effectual nature in the midst of a small number of conventional plot points. As the university bad boy, André manages to maintain his enigmatic air long enough to perpetuate both the students’ and our interest, as his audacity has a particular kind of sadomasochistic draw, certainly for anyone who has devoted more than a passing interest in cultural politics and the heated conversations that typically develop in discussing them. The power play between the boys, especially Eloi and André, is more riveting for the first half of the piece; as things begin to unravel within the circle, the film winds down slightly as well. Despite its flaws, Poison Friends is a neat foray into a largely untapped source of anxiety, the dangerous perils of academia.