“Maybe we could decide to be faithful.”
The Witnesses ( Les Temoins) is Andre Techine’s best film to date. Techine’s films are hit-and-miss for me, but The Witnesses is a brilliantly executed film that tells the story of the AIDS epidemic through a handful of characters.
It’s Paris 1984. Children’s author Sarah (Emmanuelle Beart) and her husband Mehdi (Sami Bouajila) have just had a baby, but Sarah finds it difficult adjusting to life after the birth of their son. She’s a renowned author of children’s books, and yet she acknowledges with a bitter irony that it took having a child to realize that she really can’t stand them. Plagued with writer’s block, she abandons children’s books and attempts to write a novel about a woman who abandons her child.
Meanwhile Mehdi who’s a police inspector in the vice squad harasses gays and prostitutes as part of his desire to clean up the city. He has a bad reputation with those who live and work in the street, and he seems to be driven to sweep up the darker, seedier corners of street life. Sarah and her husband have an open marriage, and they are both free to have affairs, and while these arrangements are kept quiet and are not discussed, they do exist. From Sarah’s point of view, this open marriage agreement seems to be engineered solely so that she can disconnect whenever she wants to from her relationship with Mehdi, and barricade herself in her office to write. She never refers to her baby by name, but occasionally asks, “Where’s the child?” when it dawns on her that he appears to be absent. In these cases, Medhi has usually taken the baby over to his parents and left him there.
With their marriage in trouble due to the stress of having a child that Sarah doesn’t want, Sarah and Mehdi go off on holiday to Sarah’s mother house on the coast, and here they are joined by middle-aged physician Adrien (Michel Blanc) and his much younger “boy-toy” Manu (Johan Libereau). While Adrien is besotted with Manu, it’s obvious that the relationship–such as it is–with Manu means far more to Adrien. Manu and Adrien met in a park where gays connect for sex. And while Manu makes it clear that he’s not interested in a sexual relationship with Adrien, a friendship develops between the two men.
When Manu is diagnosed with AIDS, the news comes as a stunner for this group of characters as those who’ve had sex with Manu run off for AIDS testing and struggle with the idea of confessing to their other partners about their surreptitious relationships.
The Witnesses is not a standard AIDS yarn. This is a time when people were beginning to get an inkling of the devastation they faced with AIDS, and the film captures the tragedy, and the loss of those swept away by a mysterious “plague” before they even had a chance to grasp the magnitude of this terrible disease. There’s the unexpressed idea, for example, that Manu’s sister, opera singer Julie (Julie Depardieu) has an entire career ahead of her while the virus steals whatever future and potential Manu might have had.
As with many Techine films, there’s no interest in making the audience like the characters. Adrien, who’s reliable, responsible, and a devoted friend consistently acts with dignified grace while everyone else acts badly, yet even he lacks a certain emotionality, but perhaps that’s just because all he has to deal with is Sarah and Medhi–both difficult characters in their own way.
Beautifully photographed, one of the most poignant scenes in the film shows Manu sprinting off for a final liaison, and the camera slows Manu’s pace down capturing the idea that this is one of his very last days, and also that AIDS stops him in flight. I can’t remember a film on the subject of AIDS that illustrates quite so effectively the idea that in the first wave of the disease, life was so quickly and mercilessly swept away without warning. With its subject treated delicately and poignantly, this well-acted film is really superb. In French with subtitles.