Monday, October 8, 2007

Further Off the Straight & Narrow: André Téchiné's AIDS Elegy The Witnesses

(André Téchiné, France, 2007, 114 minutes)

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 Téchiné on the 2003 World War II drama Strayed, may be the marquee name, but there are actually four--possibly even five--main characters, and each gets ample opportunity to make an impression. 

Téchiné has taken this tack before. Thieves (Les Voleurs), an equally compelling 1996 film with Catherine Deneuve, Daniel Auteuil, and Laurence Côte, for instance. Another is 1998's Alice et Martin with Juliette Binoche, Alexis Loret, and Mathieu Amalric. 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 The Witnesses plays almost like two pictures in one. Not that I was disappointed, just taken aback. In retrospect, though, Téchiné'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 AIDS is still with us, but fear has been replaced by resignation.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, successful writer Sarah (Beart) and uptight vice cop Mehdi (Sami Bouajila, The Adventures of Felix), have a baby; 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.

Since 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 would 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. Since 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 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 symbols. To describe The Witnesses as an AIDS movie implies that the foursome are defined by the ways in which they deal with the illness. That approach might have worked in the 1980s--or even the 1990s--but it would seem redundant, if not a little tasteless now.

Instead, The Witnesses examines effects of the disease from three different perspectives: before, during, and after--after death, that is. Téchiné 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 multi-dimensional to hate. Mostly, the film is an elegy for lives lost in vain. And forgotten. As much as I can't stand 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 Oct 12-21 at a variety of venues. The Witnesses plays the Cinerama on Oct 15. (The César-winning Depardieu also stars in non-fest entry Blame It on Fidel, which opens at the Varsity on Oct 19.) The opening night film, Paul Schrader's The Walker with Woody Harrelson, plays the Cinerama on Oct 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 call 206-325-6500. Images from The New York Times (Johan Libéreau, Michel Blanc and Emmanuelle Béart / Credit: Strand Releasing) and Slant Magazine (Johan Libereau and Sami Bouajila).

1 comment:

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