The Toxic Bind of Mastery and Dependence: An Interview with Emmanuel Bourdieu
by Robert Sklar
Emmanuel Bourdieu, son of the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, was briefly a professor of philosophy, and knows the academic milieu well. He wrote his first screenplay for Arnaud Despleschin's 1996 melodrama of intellectual and amorous entanglements among philosophy graduate students at a Parisian university, How I Got into an Argument...My Sex Life. Now he returns to the scholarly setting for his second feature as a director, which he also cowrote with Marcia Romano. Poison Friends dramatizes the attractions and delusions of personal power among students yearning for, but also frightened of, creative success as writers or performers.
In Professor Mortier's literature class, André Morney is the bold and provocative star. As played by Thibault Vinçon, André's eyes gleam with the sparkle of a devil's imp, at once charming and alluring, but also devious and cruel. He unsettles the class by quoting the Austrian journalist Karl Kraus's declaration, "Why do some people write? Because they're too weak not to write," and casts his spell over two impressionable friends, Eloi (Malik Zidi) and Alexandre (Alexandre Steiger). Following André's dogmatic guidance, Eloi throws his novel manuscript into the trash and sets fire to a woman's mailbox to destroy a love letter that André deplores. André leads Alexandre to lie on his résumé to gain admission to acting school.
Gradually André's confidence and mastery are revealed as insidious poses. He makes love to Marguerite (Natasha Régnier), a librarian, solely because Eloi is interested in her, deletes Marguerite's short story from her computer, and blatantly lies about it. The professor, after avowing that André is the only reason he hasn't quit teaching, discovers that his protégé has written a mediocre thesis, and has lied about his progress, too. His hollowness exposed, André slaps the professor, then tells his friends that he's leaving to take up a fellowship at Berkeley, when in fact he faces conscription into military service.
In André's absence, the others flourish: Eloi's novel is published (his mother, also a novelist, has rescued it from the trash, given it to her editor, and faked his signature on a contract), and Alexandre launches an acting career. A final breach occurs when André, absent without leave from his army post, but claiming he's on a return visit from California, lies to Alexandre's girlfriend Alice in a malicious attempt to wreck the couple's relationship. At film's end, Eloi and Alexandre are enjoying acclaim while André is disgraced and excluded. Bourdieu gives André a last word. "You were cowards," he tells them. "You needed a master." Bourdieu is interested in delineating the pathology of a man who lives to fabricate and manipulate, but also the frailty of others eager to be dominated. As the title suggests, both types of friendship can be poisonous. Poison Friends won the International Critics Week Grand Prize at Cannes in 2006 and played last fall at the New York Film Festival, where Cineaste talked with the filmmaker. Emmanuel Bourdieu spoke in English, with occasional translation assistance from Sophie Gluck.
Cineaste: When you were a professor, were you like or unlike the character Professor Mortier in your movie?
Emmanuel Bourdieu: When I began as a professor I was very, very young, because it was just after finishing my thesis. My students sometimes were older than I. I didn't have the relationships with them that Mortier has, as a father figure. I was almost their equal. I would have liked to be like him. I like his way of teaching. He's perfect as a teacher, because he keeps the right distance. A teacher doesn't have to be too close to his students. But like all the characters in the film, he has a weakness. Every year he needs to elect one student who is his reason to continue teaching. His way of choosing is excessive. He wants to choose a son. He keeps a moral distance from every other student, but with this one student, he adopts him, he cooks sausages for him at home, he introduces him to his wife. I like it when characters are, not ambivalent, but double, when each of them, like the professor, exposes an irrationality, an almost madness.
Cineaste: The professor says at one point to his student André Morney that if it wasn't for him, he might quit teaching. Is that an indictment of other students, or is it simply that he needs the special one?
Bourdieu: He is very pessimistic about universities today, because he thinks that the values of intellectual life are going to be lost. For him, it's the end of a great intellectual period. In France, previously the universities had a monopoly on granting diplomas, but now the law has been changed and even private schools have the right to give diplomas. The universities in France are frightened. Maybe he has this in mind.
Cineaste: Was that part of your motivation, when you stopped teaching and shifted over to filmmaking?
Bourdieu: It was impossible for me to get a real position in the university. I'll try to teach again. Earlier I was in philosophy, but in the future I'll teach cinema.
Cineaste: You've given your film a plural title, not Poison Friend but Poison Friends. Through much of the story a spectator may think that there's only one poison person, André Morney, and then at the end you make it more complicated. In what way do you think of the other young men as being poisonous? Are they poisonous toward Andrè?
Bourdieu: The title Poison Friends is the character Eloi's title for his book. In a sense it reflects only his point of view on the story. And it becomes his point of view before the end. All through the movie you think that there is a bad guy, André, who dominates, and is a tyrant, and on the other side there are the good guys, who are victims. I wanted to show that it was not so clear. There is poison on both sides. This kind of relationship is poisonous, and at the same time it's beneficial. You can have this kind of relationship at this period of life. You give a lot of good and bad things. It's difficult to separate them clearly. In a sense André shaped them, created them, and on the other side they take advantage of him. At the end, he's in military uniform and his hair has been cut off. He doesn't have a girlfriend. He doesn't have a social position. He has nothing. Meanwhile, they are sitting in a restaurant, they have success, special positions, beautiful girls, and everything's fine for them. He's empty. They're full. I like ambiguous relationships and stories where you can't say, who's the bad guy, who's the good one.
Cineaste: So in the end when André calls Eloi and Alexandre cowards, we're meant to take that as something to think about and even possibly agree with?
Bourdieu: Not conclusively. Usually I defend André, because many spectators, especially at the beginning of the film, become very irritated with him, and sometimes they reject him violently. But it's also important for me to defend Eloi and Alexandre, because I don't want them to be thought of as weak or naïve. I wanted spectators to be able to identify with them. Relationships under those circumstances can be deceptive. In a crisis in life, when someone as charismatic as André comes along, appearing so intelligent, you need to believe him. In crisis situations we have a need of buddies, so it's too easy to say that they're stupid because he takes advantage of them, because he's a crook. It's not so easy to see it and to tell it. I chose the actors for those roles with the idea of defending Eloi and Alexandre in mind.
Malik Zidi, who plays Eloi, is a very proud person, and overly sensitive. Sometimes I'd ask him to react to André almost as if he was going to start a fight. At the beginning of the film, when the boys go up on a rooftop, André criticizes Alexandre's shoes, and then he ridicules Eloi for taking coffee without sugar. Eloi stands up and wants never to see this guy again. At this moment André has the intelligence to call him back and to say, "I have a present for you. I have to give you something." He gives him a cherished book by their professor on the American crime writer James Ellroy, that the teacher inscribed to André. He gives Eloi his life, in a sense. He gives him his personality. He says, in effect, "You are somebody kind, somebody clear, like a beautiful guy who writes clear things, beautiful things, very elegant. In fact you are a James Ellroy, that's your real personality, so violent, maybe immoral." At this moment, just before André calls him, Eloi turns in front of him. I thought that Malik Zidi was turning to hit Thibault Vinçon, the actor playing André. His look said, stop talking to me. I don't want to see you any more. But André knows the right thing to say. Their relations are always on the boundary between rupture and friendship.
Cineaste: You could read the film as a political allegory, about a master, a leader, who beguiles his followers through lies. But you place such emphasis on literature, that they're not just followers, they're also creators, or trying to be creators, so their creativity is also being challenged. They're throwing away their work. They're changing careers. He's having a huge impact on how they see their artistry.
Bourdieu: Yes, I've chosen this milieu of literature because in their world it's a big passion. When you choose the place where your story is happening, you need this characteristic, a world dominated by a huge passion. Even in this world I wanted to show how literature could be stronger than love, than sexuality. They are strangely asexual, those boys. They love girls, but…. André, especially, isn't much attracted to girls. He's attracted to literature. I wanted their taste for literature to be a passion. Always their sexuality is invested in literature. I read the book by Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom [published in Britain as The Fear of Freedom—R.S.] , a very brilliant book. The relationships between Eloi and Alexandre, on one side, and André on the other are very close to what he describes. Fromm says that this kind of relationship needs an encounter between two dispositions. There's not only one master who comes and says, I'm going to rule over you. A disposition to rule others encounters a disposition to be ruled. It won't work if there were not two dispositions.
Cineaste: André and the others speak about James Ellroy and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Franz Kafka and Karl Kraus. No twentieth-century French writers are talked about. Is that deliberate?
Bourdieu: The choice of America as a reference was important to me. Whatever you think about America, or American literature and culture, it is something you can dream about. It's a universal dream. There are very good reasons and also bad ones, to love America. Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian writer, remarked that going to Austria is not the same as going to America. Young guys everywhere in the world dream about America. Maybe their dream is not about the real America. So I chose America for this reason.
Cineaste: One of the strongest scenes is when André mentions Kafka as a pretext to persuade Eloi goes to set fire to his love letter in Marguerite's mailbox. Kraus's name frequently comes up. So Austrian and German-language literature also figure largely.
Bourdieu: Kraus is very important for me. I love Austria because of its paradox, It's so conservative a society—they were awful during the Nazi period—but at the same time in this very conservative country very, very free intellectuals regularly appear: Wittgenstein, Kraus, Thomas Bernhard, who were so intellectually free, I admire more than anyone. I like American culture, but it's not the same thing for me.
Cineaste: It's a very radical quotation that André keeps repeating from Kraus, "Why do some people write? Because they're too weak not to write."
Bourdieu: Kraus wrote those words as a provocation in a very specific context. André is very young. He always thinks about everything in a life or death manner, all or nothing. He is a prisoner of his kind of thinking. I respect his way of thinking. I think Kraus is great as a therapy. It's good to read Kraus, but it's not a Bible. You can live, you can write. André is very excessive.
Cineaste: You use aspects of décor to reinforce these elements of character. For example, when Alexandre enters the little office that has been assigned to him, he finds that André has already taken it over and piled the shelves helter-skelter with books, nearly all with their spines to the wall. It seems as if that's a metaphor for André's mind: It's a big mess, and he can't find anything.
Bourdieu: I had very little money for this film, so I tried to work through décor. The set designer found this room after we had already begun shooting, and put it together in two days. The idea was first to show how André is very invasive. He invades the life of everybody. When Alexandre goes into the room, André is already in, already dominating him. I wanted it to be full of books. I liked the idea that this room is a symptom of André's madness. All the important books are here. But there is no order, no system.
Cineaste: In other locations, such as the apartment where Eloi lives with his mother, a novelist, did you utilize an existing apartment, with its furniture and paintings already in place, or did you dress the set in the same way as the office with the books?
Bourdieu: I wanted to communicate the idea that there was something in common between André and Eloi's mother—among other things, both their bedrooms are painted the color red. The mother's apartment is set up so that Eloi cannot leave his room, cannot go out of the apartment, without crossing through her room. She, like André, also invades him. The art director chose the paintings and pictures and I approved them. I wanted the look of a very feminine world, almost too much so: Femininity and motherhood at the same time. It's as if Eloi absorbed literature in his mother's womb.
Cineaste: In your shooting style, you use a number of moving camera shots, tracking characters as they move. Is there a philosophy or a viewpoint behind this camera style?
Bourdieu: The idea was to make an action film with the theme of literature. Mental work, mental activity, and psychological behavior, all are actions. André is sometimes violent—although not very violent—but his violence is symbolic, part of him. I wanted to associate him with movement. He is always moving and we are always moving with him. I wanted to express his energy through camera movement. So there are a lot of traveling shots. I wanted to film him as if he were a rock musician—like Jim Morrison of the Doors. I wanted him to look more like a rock star then like a Woody Allen, whom I love. I wanted his energy. In the middle of the film, when he slaps the professor, something stops, André stops. The professor moves, André stops talking. The idea was that when André stops moving and talking, the film tips over, and something very dark, the mean side of André, emerges. He touches me very much in this part. In the beginning he's so irresistible and indestructible, you are not with him, you are with the others. He makes you laugh, he fights you, he can impress you, but he doesn't touch you. You can't even say that he has an inner life. He's so perfect. But from this moment when he stops talking and walking you realize that this guy is losing something, in a very tragic, very profound way. From this point in the film his point of view is not the only one, but it's very present. You read the rest of the film from his point of view.
Cineaste: You cowrote the screenplay with a woman, Marcia Romano, and yet it seems that the women in the film are somewhat different from what one might expect in an equivalent U.S. environment, such as university life or an intellectual milieu. Leaving aside Eloi's mother, whom Eloi describes as crazy, the younger women seem rather compliant, rather dependent. It's a man's story, to be sure, but it feels as if the women are not represented with the same richness and complexity as the men.
Bourdieu: It's true that we had to choose, with Marcia Romano, if it would be a film about a group of men or a group of women. Those kinds of groups are very separate. I wouldn't be so severe as you with the women in the film. Eloi's mother is, in fact, really mad. All her life is literature. But when she talks about literature, you have to listen to her, she's right. She's the opposite of the professor—her character is irrational, except for one thing, about which she's very mature, very rational.
About the girls, I think they're more aware, more intelligent, they see though André easier than the boys. They benefit from their position as outsiders. Marguerite is different. The boys chose her because she's a librarian. They believe in literature, so they fall in love with the girl at the library. She works, she knows real life, and when she falls in love, it's true love. André is very hard, very mean to her. She sometimes reflects my own point of view on the story. There was originally a different ending to the film—it was not André going out of the restaurant in the last scene, it was Marguerite. She went crying through the restaurant, very close to the camera, and it was my point of view, that it was sad, that a beautiful friendship—in a way, a beautiful friendship—ends like that.
Alice, Alexandre's girlfriend, embodies innocence for me. With Alice, we needed to make André go too far, When André hurts Alice, lying to her that Alexandre has left the restaurant and stood her up, every spectator will think, Okay, André, you're a special guy, but treating this girl and Alexandre that way is not possible. Intentionally we wanted André to choose a mean lie. He wants to destroy their relationship.
It's more difficult for me to respond to questions about movie style, but my ambition is to work in this direction, I would like to have more time for preparation and for shooting. What's important for me is the cinematographic mood of the film. I like the thematic aspects of film, naturally, but the energy that goes into point of view is very precious for me.
Robert Sklar is a historian specializing in the history of film. He has written several books on the history of film and is currently a professor in the Department of Cinema Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.
Copyright © 2007 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXII, No. 2