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  • TBC
  • Drama
  • 2007
  • 114 mins

The Witnesses

The Witnesses

Synopsis

André Téchiné's sprawling drama sees the onset of the Aids epidemic from the ground up

About

In Pier Paolo Pasolini's Theorem (1968), the sudden arrival and equally sudden departure of a seductive stranger has a dramatic effect on all who encounter him. The same is true of André Téchiné's The Witnesses, in which Manu (Libéreau), an alluring young gay man from the southern provinces, touches the lives of every Parisian he meets, before leaving them all forever. Téchiné's concern, however, is not with the decline of the bourgeoisie, but with a phenomenon more rooted in the 1980s, if no less cataclysmic in its effects on both individuals and society.

Manu drifts into Paris in the summer of 1984, at a time of great sexual liberation. Staying with his opera-singing sister Julie (Depardieu) in a seedy hotel, Manu is quick to befriend the much older gay doctor Adrien (Blanc) - although their relationship remains platonic - and through Adrien, Manu meets blocked novelist Sarah (Béart) and Muslim vice cop Mehdi (Bouajila), who are in an open marriage and have just had a child. Adrien has completely fallen for Manu, but the young man has also attracted the attentions of Mehdi, and a passionate affair begins.

This is just the first section of The Witnesses, entitled 'Happy Days (Summer 1984)', and it plays like a light erotic drama that could easily have been directed by Eric Rohmer - a sort of comedy of errors woven out of longing glances and breezy betrayals in a seasonal setting, with only Sarah's post-natal depression occasionally infecting the air of carefree flippancy. Then, however, with autumn comes a truly terrible crisis, and in the ensuing war, everyone must decide which side they are on and how they want to live - or die.

Like Sarah's evolving novel for adults, Téchiné's film is a fictionalised testimonial to events that were all too real, and lives that do not deserve to be forgotten. The Witnesses is hardly the first film to deal with the human cost of Aids - Cyril Collard's Savage Nights (1992), Mike Figgis's One Night Stand (1997) and François Ozon's Time To Leave (2005) have all done this before - but by devoting so much time to his characters before introducing the disease, and by giving so little indication, beyond our retrospective knowledge of historical chronology, that the disease is even coming, Téchiné recreates the growing incomprehension and panic of the time, while allowing us to glimpse his characters in all their joys and sorrows. No one here is drowned in cliche or reduced to victimhood.

At the same time, for all the complexity of their interactions and the difficulty of their choices, Téchiné's characters are not really engaging enough to retain our interest for the film's rather lengthy duration (with Julie in particular hardly having any obvious importance) - and the life-affirming coda, however qualified it may be, still seems awkwardly tacked on. Only the uniformly strong performances and Julien Hirsch's painterly cinematography will have viewers holding on to the bitter end.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Lorenzo Balducci, Constance Dollé, Jacques Nolot, Michel Blanc, Julie Depardieu, Alain Cauchi, Johan Libéreau, Sami Bouajila, Emmanuelle Béart
  • Director: André Téchiné
  • Writer: Viviane Zingg, Laurent Guyot, André Téchiné
  • Producer: Saïd Ben Saïd
  • Photographer: Julien Hirsch
  • Composer: Fred Chichin, Philippe Sarde

In a nutshell

In Téchiné's nuance-sensitive Aids drama, the characters feel as real as they are multi-faceted - but they are rarely engaging.

by Anton Bitel

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