Monday, October 8, 2007

Further Off the Straight & Narrow

(Andre Techine, France, 2007, 114 mins.)


International Centerpiece of the 11th annual Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, The Witnesses is a true ensemble effort. Freckle-faced, poufy-lipped Emmanuelle Beart, who last worked with Andre Techine on the World War II drama Strayed (2003), may be the marquee name, but there are actually four-arguably five-main characters, and each gets ample opportunity to make an impression. Techine has taken this tack before, as in the equally compelling Les Voleurs (with Catherine Deneuve)
and Alice et Martin (with Juliette Binoche). He's a master at this sort of thing.

Because I hadn't read anything about the film beforehand, I was surprised to
find that it plays almost like two pictures in one. Not that I was disappointed,
just taken aback. In retrospect, though, Techine's technique makes perfect sense.

After all, the days of Philadelphia, Longtime Companion, and An Early Frost-referenced in the SLGFF documentary Further Off the Straight & Narrow-have passed. AIDS is
still with us, but fear has been replaced by resignation. And selective amnesia.

Set in the mid-1980s, Techine's 20th feature begins as a lively drama about
life changes. A married couple, Sarah (Beart) and Mehdi (Sami Bouajila, The Adventures of Felix), have a baby-she's a successful writer, he's an uptight vice
cop-a young man from the provinces, Manu (Johan Libereau, Cold Showers),
follows his sister, Julie (Julie Depardieu, La Petite Lili), to Paris, and a middle-
aged doctor, Adrien (actor/director Michel Blanc, Grosse Fatigue), falls in love with
an aspiring chef (Libereau again). Because Sarah and Adrien are old friends, the central quartet often socializes together (on the scenic French Riviera, no less).
As Julie is busy training to be an opera singer, she flits in and out of the story.
The same is true of Sandra (Constance Dolle), a prostitute who Julie and Manu befriend as a consequence of living in the same fleabag hotel-cum-brothel. Sandra claims she loves her job-a fairly preposterous statement-but Dolle's joie d'vivre almost had me convinced. (And if I were casting a French-language remake of
Irma la Douce, she's the first person I'd call.) This is also the kind of film where
a character will stop what they're doing, exclaim, "Hey, that's my favorite song!"
and start dancing. When Sandra did just that, she secured a place in my heart.
From the start, though, there are intimations of the dark days to come. Sarah
turns out to be a terrible mother, and Mehdi embarks on an affair with Manu. As
they have an open marriage, he betrays Adrien more than he does his wife. Adrien worships the self-centered Manu, who appreciates the companionship, but doesn't share his ardor. Mehdi doesn't want to hurt Adrien's feelings, so he doesn't say a word. When one of these characters contracts AIDS, keeping secrets is no longer
an option. At this point, Techine could've transitioned into thriller territory. The question as to who may get infected next does generate considerable tension, but character development ultimately trumps (some rather convenient) plot mechanics.
Once things turn tragic, the humor and frivolity evaporate, but by then Sarah,
Mehdi, Manu, and Adrien have emerged as unique individuals-not victims, perpetrators, or, worse yet, symbols. Further, to describe The Witnesses as an
AIDS movie implies that the foursome is defined by the ways in which they deal (or don't deal) with the illness. That approach might have worked in the 1980s-or even
the 1990s-but it would seem downright redundant, if not a little tasteless, now.
Rather, The Witnesses looks at the disease from three different perspectives: before, during, and after-after death, that is. Techine doesn't stint on the horrors
of AIDS, but nor does he assign blame. Consequently, I found Mehdi the most fascinating figure. He may be a hypocrite, but Bouajila makes him too human to hate. Mostly, the film is an elegy for lives lost in vain. And forgotten. As much as
I detest the phrase "life-affirming," The Witnesses is anything but depressing.
Produced by Three Dollar Bill Cinema, THE 2007 SEATTLE LESBIAN & GAY FILM FESTIVAL runs from 10/12-21 at a variety of venues. The Witnesses plays the Cinerama on 10/15. (The Cesar-winning Depardieu also stars in non-fest entry
Blame It on Fidel, which opens at the Varsity on 10/19.) The opening night film,
Paul Schrader's The Walker (starring Woody Harrelson), plays the Cinerama on
10/12. Other highlights include The Itty Bitty Titty Committee, An Evening with
Jane Lynch
, and a restored version of Parting Glances (starring a scrawny Italian-American kid named Steve Buscemi). For more information, please click here or
call 206-325-6500. Images from indieWIRE, Last Night with Riviera, and OutNow.

1 comment:

  1. Landmark has just announced an opening date for "The Witnesses." It's Friday, 2/15, at the Varsity.