Living Through This
Andre Techine's Latest Takes an Intimate Look at a Different Generation of Survivors
With the opening shot in a crowded park, French auteur André Téchiné plunges right into Paris’ uninhibited gay underworld. There’s nothing particularly ominous about the scenario, no hint that the party will be over soon. Adrien (Michel Blanc), a 60-year-old doctor, tries to pick up 20-year-old Manu (Johan Libérau) on a park bench. Manu decides Adrien is too old for him, and they start an awkwardly celibate friendship.
This meandering quality of relationships in Téchiné’s movies can leave you checking your watch occasionally, but in The Witnesses, it’s an effective counterpart to the ruthlessly linear quality of AIDS itself. In The Witnesses, the war on AIDS fades into the background, and Téchiné focuses on the people who are gradually building an out-of-kilter universe in its wake. The way characters meet, separate, and re-engage one another is the natural rhythm of life.
It’s a rhythm that flows through much of Téchiné’s work: in 2002’s Strayed, as a few refugees huddle in an abandoned French chateaux during World War II; in 1992’s Wild Reeds, a boys’ boarding school turns into the Algerian War in miniature. Here, at least in the first third of the movie, the way characters collide and re-collide is what defines the movie.
Manu has come from the provinces to meet guys and to stay with his younger sister Julie (Julie Depardieu). He meets Adrien, and the doctor’s close friend, children’s-book author Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart), who has just had a baby but chooses to ignore it. Her husband, Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), is an Arab-born vice cop with a taste for guys. All of the above decide to take a break from Paris and head out for a beach vacation, which eventually triggers a ménage à trois, while the aging doctor remains, petulantly, in the background.
Meanwhile, it’s 1983-’84, and men with AIDS symptoms are starting to appear in Paris hospitals for the first time. As Adrien starts to involve himself in the battle, Téchiné follows the inexorable progress of the disease through grainy newsreel footage. Manu, whose joyful absorption in Paris’ sex scene is catching up with him, is one of the first victims. Adrien, after being shunted aside, is once again in the thick of things as he tries to nurse Manu and warn Mehdi.
Bouajila’s Mehdi, the undercover vice cop who falls for Manu, is The Witnesses’ most dominating presence. Mehdi is another one of Téchiné’s dark, somewhat moody outsiders who sit at the nexus of romantic triangles as the world gravitates toward them. Mehdi keeps his distance, without ever appearing standoffish, and the flighty Manu falls head-over-heels in love with him. There are a few false starts, and then, suddenly, the hitherto reticent, married guy takes him up on the offer. But that’s where the resemblance to Brokeback Mountain ends—no one in this story spends time cringing over his sexuality. And that’s probably the movie’s most refreshing element.
Béart’s Sarah adds an intriguing, if somewhat moody, female presence to the movie. She revolves listlessly around Mehdi, waiting to see what he does next, while typing away at her next children’s book. With her somewhat unreadable gaze, she appears willing to let their open relationship take them where it will. But that passivity ends when she realizes that her husband has been sleeping with a man who is dying of AIDS. As Adrien, Blanc adds a stabilizing presence and manages to gravitate slowly from being a helplessly infatuated, aging lover to a father figure for the entire troubled group. Libérau is ebullient, good-looking, and somewhat amorphous in his portrayal of the narcissistic Manu. His joie de vivre is a little exaggerated, perhaps to add pathos to his subsequent demise. As his sister Julie, who shares an apartment with Manu while she starts off her operatic career, Depardieu does what she can with a role that really doesn’t do much except add another layer to a complicated series of relationships.
Somehow, despite the subject matter, Téchiné turns The Witnesses into a tribute to a carefree, chaotic era. His camera feels like it wants to stay in the small enclosures with characters gradually sidling up against one another until the boundaries between them disappear. In the central third of the story, the physical nature of AIDS cuts through that like a knife, and as Manu slowly deteriorates, the movie shifts gear and lurches forward. In the end, though, by adding 10 or 15 minutes that extend the movie beyond its natural length, Téchiné brings you back to the rhythm of everyday life. That may be frustrating for an audience waiting for closure or a big-picture moment, but for Téchiné, the absence of such artifice may be the point.