Someday, a French-history student looking for a good paper topic should try to figure out why so many French dramas and thrillers revolve around charismatic strangers messing with the lives of insecure aristocrats. In Emmanuel Bourdieu's Poison Friends, Thibault Vinçon plays a superstar grad student who becomes the spiteful Svengali to a circle of peers, all of whom want to be famous authors and electrify the Parisian literary world. Vinçon is prone to impassioned speeches about why a writer must write—it's apparently because "they're weak"—and he all but forces one of his friends to become a James Ellroy scholar, and another to become an actor. But while he's guiding their career paths, Vinçon is quietly neglecting his own, and disappointing his thesis advisor.
In addition to his own feature films, Bourdieu has penned screenplays for Arnaud Desplechin and other impressive young directors, and he's at the center of a tight-knit group of nouveau French cinema-folk. So it's no surprise that Bourdieu would be sympathetic to the situation Vinçon makes for himself, treating his friends' success as his own cockeyed work of art. Poison Friends neither completely condones nor condemns Vinçon, and Bourdieu builds substantial tension and pathos out the twists and turns of Vinçon's relationship with Malik Zidi, the would-be Ellroy expert who has a successful novel published almost against his will—and certainly against Vinçon's.
But Bourdieu fumbles the ending a little, opting to give Vinçon a hammy, point-underlining speech, followed by a shot that unintentionally echoes Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, a far subtler study of dissolving friendships. Up to the last five minutes, though, Poison Friends stays true to that heady, idealistic-to-a-fault world of academia, divided as it is into lectures in the morning, bull sessions in the afternoon, and noisy mating rituals at night. And while it's slightly ludicrous, even in France, to conceive of a culture where literary novelists become celebrities, there's something heartening about Bourdieu's vision of a world where words matter.