In 1987, the artist formerly known as Prince, sang: In France a skinny man/Died of a big disease with a little name.
Twenty years on, seasoned French director André Téchiné’s new and 20th feature film assuredly broaches the same subject.
The Witnesses positions its historical portrayal of the cataclysmic arrival of the AIDS epidemic to the liberal stage of late-20th century sexual practice at the heart of a closely-observed, intimate group of friends and lovers. The specific skillfully becomes universal, as the shared world is devastated by the intrusion of the little-mentioned, and then still little-known, fatal disease.
Paris, Summer 1984: Téchiné deliberately draws the unsuspecting spectator into the tight-knit world of five protagonists whose relationships to each other slowly reveal themselves to be more complex than originally perceived – a complexity which steadily and stealthily creeps up on them (and the viewer) as insidiously as the HIV virus itself.
Manu (Johan Libéreau), a young man from the provinces, arrives in the capital to lodge with his sister Julie (Julie Depardieu). Attracted by the low-life scene and experimenting with his homosexuality, Manu meets Adrien (Michel Blanc), a gay man many years his senior who falls in love with him. The relationship remains platonic, yet Manu and Adrien develop a close friendship. Through Adrien, Manu is introduced to a 30something heterosexual couple, Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart) and Mehdi (Sami Bouajila) who have just had their first child. Initially, Téchiné depicts a pre-lapsarian world wherein it is still permissible for homosexuals to cruise urban parks, prostitutes to go about the oldest profession in the world in the more salubrious districts, and straight couples to play open marriage with multiple partners. Not forever, alas. The plot takes a surprising turn when Mehdi saves Manu from drowning, a defining moment when both men realize their mutual physical and emotional attraction. A full-blown affair develops, with fatal consequences.
Despite the flawless acting of the ensemble cast, it is newcomer Libéreau’s portrayal of Manu which is the tour de force. He is as tantalizingly watchable in his first guise of exuberant, devil-may-care, passionate youth, as he is wrenchingly convincing in his rapid and tragic decline – helpless victim of a disease he rails against, yet for which there is no known cure. Téchiné unflinchingly forces the spectator to accompany Manu and his entourage through that monstrous metamorphosis, detailing the minutiae of his physical and psychological decline. In terms of performance, close on Libéreau’s heels, is Bouajila (Days of Glory) as the contradictory Mehdi: the macho cop, flawed husband and caring father who is floored by his inexplicable but all-consuming desire for Manu.
In essence, The Witnesses is as much a treatise on love and the nature of love as it is a chronicle of a disease that changed our contemporary landscape. Manu and Mehdi’s mutual passion drives the plot’s engine, ironically, to destruction. It is, in fact, when Mehdi is at the wheel of his car that Manu makes his first pass at him. Bittersweet though it is revealed to be, the film never judges the unstoppability and unquestionabilty of the men’s love for each other. As much as he gruffly shrugs off his feelings for Manu, Mehdi is as obsessed as his young lover, driving cars through barriers to see him, doubled over in grief when he finally sees the physical state to which Manu has been reduced. In a rare moment of honesty, Mehdi says to Manu, “You know I can’t pass a day without seeing you,” and Manu’s retort to Adrien about their love is, “I don’t give a damn about what is ridiculous, I’m happy.”
In the pivotal role of Adrien, Blanc impeccably conveys his unrequited love for Manu, a love that ultimately finds an outlet. In his professional capacity as a doctor, Adrien makes it his cause both to seek the best available treatment for Manu and to further awareness of the epidemic. Without exception, Téchiné’s characters are flawed: Adrien is a self-destructive romantic, Mehdi’s egocentricity is most in evidence when he discovers he is not HIV-positive, Sarah is a selfish mother and unfaithful wife. Still, although we may not like these people, we feel for them.
The Witnesses is a mature film. Téchiné effortlessly depicts the 1980s’ easy-come-easy-go zeitgeist without the use of the clunking, clichéd period references to which lesser directors so often resort. Instead, he evokes a mood of recklessness not synonymous with happiness as well as the foreboding of an imminent fall from grace. In various interviews, Téchiné has confessed that the onslaught of AIDS and those early, anxious years of its unforgiving contamination are subjects close to his heart and experience. He witnessed the reality of those grave times and quietly summons today’s audience to witness again, or, perhaps, to really see for the first time.
© 2007 Maxine Harfield. All rights reserved.
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