The French film Poison Friends, directed by Emmanuel Bordieu from a screenplay he co-wrote with Marcia Romano, has the virtue of having an unusual subject—intellectual fraudulence, as practiced by smart college students who are too busy working on their poses to devote much energy to their studies. Most American movies in academic settings have so little interest in depicting anything like an educational process for the issue to ever come up, though sometimes, when an innocent student who has fallen under the sway of a Mephistophelian professor has started skipping frat parties and talking back to his simple but common-sensical farmer parents, the professor will be exposed as a bloated phony so that the student will realize that he’s been guilty of putting on airs.
Here, the phony in question is André Morney (Thibault Vincon), who struts onto campus with a mop of dark curls, an archer’s eyes, a smarmy grin that’s like an unacknowledged insult to everyone he sees, and the air of someone convinced of his own genius. André may not have any ideas of his own, but he knows which names to drop and what attitudes to take towards them to dazzle the right professors, for a while. He even has a line of cant that both impresses his anxious, uncertain fellow students and seems to justify his own inclination towards underproduction: he enjoys gassing on about the courage needed not to write, to spare the world the latest restatements of the same old tired observations. The way he sees it, it’s not for him to earn his diploma and the brilliant career that goes with it; the school’s just holding it for him until the time is right, since to give it to him before he’d sat in on a few classes would be unseemly.
André’s self-possessed smugness makes him an intimidating hero-worship figure to more insecure students, such as Eloi (Malik Zidi), whose family background as the son of a famous, controversial writer (Dominique Blanc) already has him predisposed to feel ambivalent about his own writing talents. André takes Eloi under his wing, challenging him to believe in himself and to prove his worth as an artist, and one of the film’s sweeter ironies is that when André picks someone out to target with his pseud’s gospel, he actually has a beneficial motivational effect. He also has a real eye for talent. He even encourages Eloi to dare to test his mettle by basing his thesis on the most dauntingly, unapproachably great of all living writers: the bard of Southern California and True Detective magazine, James Ellroy. (Did I mention that this is a French film?)
Thibault Vincon has a nervy, sharklike charisma that holds your attention and sets your teeth on edge at the same time. If anything, he’s unwholesomely true to the type he’s playing, and many viewers will guess at how completely full of crap André is long before his on-screen disciples catch on. That can make the movie seem a little heavy-handed early on, but it becomes more surprising as André’s charm begins to fail and events wipe the grin off his face. Vincon’s performance deepens as it goes along, too. When André’s professor-mentor (Jacques Bonnaffé) tells him that his thesis isn’t up to snuff and laments that the time he’s lavished on his star pupil has been repaid “with neglect and disregard,” André can’t believe it; unable to deal with being seen through, he first tries to talk his way back into the professor’s good graces, then has a meltdown and assaults him in a university hallway. (Bonnaffé plays the wilted professor smoothly, with a sly wit; when he looks up from André’s failed thesis, you can see his last hopes for a halfway meaningful academic career dying in his eyes.) There’s also a too-brief sweetheart of a performance by Natacha Regnier, who looks to have aged about ten minutes since 1999’s The Dreamlife Of Angels, and who plays the girl whose relationship with André and Eloi would constitute some k