Running Time 115 minutes
Directed by André Téchiné
Written by André Téchiné, Laurent Guyot and Viviane Zingg
Starring Emmanuelle Béart, Johan Libéreau and Michel Blanc
André Téchiné’s The Witnesses (Les Témoins), from a screenplay (in French with English subtitles) by Mr. Téchiné, Kaurent Guyot and Vivianne Zingg, treats the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, first in the United States and then spreading to the rest of the world in 1984, as a devastating medical atrocity in a war that is still raging. The unending conflict is reflected in the personal tragedy of Manu (Johan Libéreau), a provincial youth who arrives in Paris in 1984 to sample the pleasures of gay life, while sharing a cheap hotel room with his sister, Julie (Julie Depardieu).
As Manu cruises in the Elysian Fields of male pickups and one-night stands, he enters into a platonic relationship with an openly admiring older man, a well-to-do physician, Adrien (Michel Blanc). Manu is not at all physically attracted to the doctor, but appreciates his kindness, generosity and knowledge of the world.
During a summer outing on his speedboat, Adrien introduces Manu to two of his friends, Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart) and Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), an unmarried couple who have just had their first child. Sarah is a wealthy novelist who, after a lucrative career with children’s books, is experiencing writer’s block in attempting to produce her first serious novel. Mehdi is a North African head detective of a police vice squad operating in a district frequented by Manu in his nocturnal prowls through gay bars.
When Mehdi saves Manu from drowning at one of Adrien’s beach outings, Mehdi becomes unnerved by his reaction to the physical intimacy with Manu, and they soon thereafter become passionate lovers. Neither Adrien nor Sarah appears fazed by this new and unexpected relationship. Sarah simply appropriates it as a spicy part of her hitherto blocked novel, and goes so far as to confess her own infidelity with her publisher as evidence of her preference for an “open” relationship with Mehdi despite their child together. As for Adrien, he has never been jealous of Manu’s many lovers. Besides, Manu and Mehdi are parts, in a sense, of his extended family.
When asked by an interviewer if Witnesses was a way of examining a kind of freedom that existed historically from the 70’s to the early 80’s before AIDS, Mr. Téchiné replied, “Yes, those are what I call the ‘happy days,’ which is the title of the first part of the film. Sexual freedom enabled people to experiment with relationships in a harmonious way without shame and without constant discussion. Sex and friendships could be experimented with, free of feelings of guilt. We’re light years from Puritanism and pornography, which are two sides of the same coin. … I make movies about what I feel is important. What is true of this film, and every film, is that it questions right and wrong. And who decides what’s right and what’s wrong today? Doctors and lawyers. I think that from the onset of the AIDS crisis, the medical establishment capitulated on questions of morality, so that leaves only the law courts, and their executive arm is the police. That’s perhaps why it seemed so obvious to have a doctor and a police officer in this story.”
Despite the affinity for gay relationships in his 37-year, 18-film career, Mr. Téchiné, like most French male directors, has never slighted his female characters. Sarah and Julie are taken very seriously as artists—Sarah as a troubled writer, and Julie as an aspiring and ultimately fulfilled opera singer. Indeed, it is against the visual and aural backdrop of grand opera that Manu’s physical disintegration is ennobled as an undeserved martyrdom to a mysterious malignancy in the universe. Life goes on, of course, but not entirely convincingly in Mr. Téchiné’s narrative, which is extended beyond the film’s logical ending at the moment when the terminally ill Manu walks into the mist of the now ghostly Elysian Fields, and dramatically disappears.
Still, one of the most honest moments in the film transpires when Mehdi visibly erupts with a faintly smiling sigh of relief upon his learning that he has tested negatively for Manu’s deadly virus. He is immediately guilt-stricken afterward for the disloyalty to Manu implied in his joy over his own survival. Though the director has repeatedly denied that he makes films inspired by his own experiences, he responded thusly to a question about why he returned to the 80’s to show people dying of AIDS: “Yes, because I have a sense of having escaped my destiny and that’s what gave me this urge to make this movie. Otherwise, it would have been a slightly abstract ambition.”
Thus, despite all his disclaimers, this onetime 19-year-old provincial from southwest France, who came to Paris in 1962 to pursue his passion for cinema, bears more than a passing resemblance to Manu. The resemblance ends with Mr. Téchiné’s having written film criticism for Cashiers du Cinema, the launching pad for so many of his predecessors, from 1964 to 1967. The rest is film history at such a consistent level that it makes one grateful that Mr. Téchiné escaped the scourge of a period he resurrects with deep feeling in The Witnesses.