The French can't be beat for depicting sheer nastiness because they do it with such style and relish. Almost any Claude Chabrol film will do as an example, and a classic instance is H.G. Clouzot's controversial 1943 thriller "Le Corbeau," about a small-town poison-pen letter writer in occupied France.
The hero -- or antihero -- of Emmanuel Bourdieu's brisk, witty "Poison Friends" is plenty nasty, but also complex and compelling. He's Andre Morney (Thibault Vincon), the star pupil of a literature class at the Sorbonne. Two new students -- Eloi (Malik Zidi), unsure that he wants to follow in the footsteps of his famous novelist mother (Dominique Blanc), and aspiring actor Alexandre (Alexandre Steiger) -- are instantly dazzled by Morney's extemporaneous speech on the need for all writing to be justified, hence the reason "the critic is essential to the existence of literature."
Tousle-haired, good-looking and possessed of an intense gaze, Morney immediately takes them under wing. Their lecturer (Jacques Bonnaffe) is a James Ellroy expert, and Morney introduces them to the work of the American novelist. Morney gives them good advice and steers them in the right direction, but it's clearer to the viewer than it is to Eloi and Alexandre that Morney will demand complete and total allegiance in return. They are intelligent young men but in the grip of youthful naivete. Morney is a master manipulator, a glib liar, a control freak and surely a sociopath. Has anyone made it through college without coming up against someone bearing at least a passing resemblance to Morney?
Bourdieu and his co-writer, Marcia Romano, develop their plot and their characters with unflagging zest, imagination and unpredictability, and Bourdieu's direction bristles with energy; throughout there is the feeling that Bourdieu has gotten the absolute, spot-on best from his ensemble cast. In a very real sense, "Poison Friends" is at once a sly satire on the pretensions and aspirations of academia and an intellectual suspense-thriller that builds and builds but never loses credibility. The heart of the mystery is the mind and soul -- does he even have a soul? -- of Morney, who emerges in a stunning climactic sequence as a figure of jolting paradox and irony. Steeped in shrewdness about the often contradictory workings of human nature, "Poison Friends" is gratifying in the best tradition of French cinema.
"Poison Friends" ("Les Amities Malefiques"). Unrated. Complex adult themes. Running time:
1 hour, 47 minutes. In French, with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.