Writer-director Emmanuel Bourdieu does his bit to fight the homogenization of world cinema in "Poison Friends," a movie so unrepentantly French that viewers who enjoy truly Gallic pics can start (tastefully) salivating now. Miraculously, pic explores the pretentiousness of the Paris-centric literary scene without pretension, as a gang of male university students spend an eventful year striving to evolve from callow youths to the toast of the town. One never knows who may end up as burnt toast as engaging tale of ambition, fabulation, romance and deceit goes through its well-played and nicely lensed paces.
Handsome Alexandre Pariente (Alexandre Steiger) arrives for the first day of class in a graduate lit program at the Sorbonne straight off the train, suitcase and all. In the course taught by famous and imperious Prof. Mortier (Jacques Bonnaffe), he meets Eloi (Malik Zidi), Edouard (Thomas Blanchard) and Andre (Thibault Vincon), aspiring writers all.
Andre is full of himself, while the other three lads are tentative in their actions and respectful toward their elders. Andre assumes the world is his oyster and each of his thoughts a perfectly formed pearl. He makes pronouncements about art and life with a blend of insouciance and finality that keeps his disciples mesmerized.
Polite, reserved Eloi is the son of Florence Duhaut (Dominique Blanc), a slightly nutso French writer famous enough to be the subject of a recent tell-all book. In his doting mother's shadow, Eloi's modesty and doubts are genuine.
Alexandre really wants to act, but needs a slightly devious push from Andre to apply to the drama conservatory. To Andre's cruel distaste, Edouard is the first to publish a story -- mostly in hopes of impressing a girl.
Andre seems impossibly well-connected, a golden boy in a world where the price of gold is always on the rise. But can you always judge a book lover by his cover story?
Pic is deft, entertaining and, in its reverence for name-dropping scholarship and the paths by which the chosen few make a name for themselves, thoroughly Parisian. That said, the Manhattan or London lit scenes could certainly be substituted with a few crucial tweaks.
This is a story about guys trying to impress each other and the gods as surely as in the "Iliad" or "Odyssey," although Natacha Regnier has a semi-pivotal role as Marguerite, a librarian more than one lad covets.
For the record, the math implied in the use (twice) of the words "three months later" onscreen doesn't really add up.
Camera (color, widescreen), Yorick Le Saux; editor, Benoit Quinon; music, Gregoire Hetzel; production designer, Nicolas de Boiscuille; sound (Dolby), Francois Guillaume; assistant director, Elsa Amiel. Reviewed at Cinematheque Francaise, Paris, May 12, 2006. (In Cannes Film Festival -- Critics Week.) Running time: 103 MIN.