André Téchiné's new movie about criss-crossing relationships marked by the AIDS crisis begins when Adrien (Michel Blanc), a respectable gay doctor, picks up a young, eager and definitely gay country boy from the mountains in a Parisian cruising area. Adrien just wants to protect young Manu (Johan Libéreau); there's no sex; but he takes the boy everywhere and falls madly in love with him. Whatever shenanigans Manu is up to, he's sweet to Adrien. A narcissist, he loves the attention. He doesn't get that from Julie, (Julie Depardieu), the opera singer sister he shares a cheap hotel room with. Adrien's idyll ends when Manu gets a job in a remote camping ground and starts an affair with a bisexual vice cop of Arab extraction named Mehdi (Sami Bouajila). It's a small world, because not only have Manu and Mehdi met through Mehdi's well-heeled wife, Sarah (a friend of Adrien's); Mehdi also minds the seedy area where Manu lives with Julie and consorts with the local whores. Sarah and Mehdi have an open marriage. They also have a baby she doesn't much care for and she is getting tired of writing children's books and wants to write a regular novel. After saving Manu from drowning gives Mehdi a raging hard-on and they begin having daily sex, this becomes something far too important to tell Sarah about.
All this is moved forward with a Nouvelle Vague-style retrospective voice-over spoken by Sarah, and this is Part One, entitled "Summer 1984: Happy Days." The happy days are not to last. The AIDS crisis is about to happen and Manu is going to be one of its early victims. The idea that this is a collective tragedy worthy of opera is underlined by Julie's singing and operatic background themes, not to mention the swirling merry-go-round of interactive relationships.
Many of these ingredients are familiar to Téchiné fans. The young gay boy from the mountains who goes wild in Paris has close parallels with the young Pierre (played by an actor named Manu, Manuel Blanc) in the 1991 J'embrasse pas (I Don't Kiss), who likewise comes from the mountains, winds up in a promiscuous gay life as a hustler, and initially finds an older gay protector at a Parisian cruising area (and this film also has Béart in the cast). I Don't Kiss focuses mainly on Pierre, but in it many paths cross. A love triangle and bisexuality are central to the 1994 Wild Reeds (Les roseaux sauvages), another period film, though it's set in the Sixties. Criss-crossing, bisexuality, and a brother-sister combination are found in Les Voleurs (Thieves, 1996). These are all fine, fascinating films. The Witnesses partakes of the same complexity. There is something radical about Téchiné's ability to avoid a central action or central character, yet keep things interesting--even more interesting because of the unpredictability of the interactions and an openness toward behavior the straight world tends to see as forbidden or transgressive.
Les Voleurs is complicated in this way, but it's anchored in a powerful sense of family and place, and made exciting by the fact that one main character is a representative of the law and several others he's personally involved with are, as the title implies, criminals. Wild Reeds is a kind of triple coming of age film, and has simplicity and focus through a tranquil provincial setting and the relatively simple life of the three youths, with the Algerian war a vague but powerful magnetic force in the background. It's more sympathetic toward the gay boy and his sensitive "girlfriend" than toward the bisexual youth who breaks his heart, but the latter's dark appeal is unmistakable. Téchiné's mastery of the odd and unexpected relationship is never more evident than in the intense, transitory union between a wild, mysterious boy called Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel) and a Parisian mother fleeing WWII bombs in the country (Béart again) whom he rescues in Strayed (Les Égarés)--a story of intense freshness marked by Téchiné's great sense of landscape and ability to blend sweeping, evocative tracking shots and vivid close-ups. The look of The Witnesses isn't as beautiful and consistent, but there are many nice little visual details. The faces will stay with you: Mehdi's hyperactive eyes, muscular brow, and disturbed jaw, Adrien's intelligent, bourgeois solidity, his pale shaved dome, has stylish round glasses; Sarah's distracted gaze and scruffy bleached hair; Manu's wild eagerness and frequent smiles, then his skin ravaged by lesions. Also memorable visually are Manu's little light-footed leaps over barriers and onto branches, which Adrien observes admiringly but does not try to follow.
It's disconcerting to discover that Manu isn't central to The Witnesses because when AIDS takes him away, life goes on. Adrien has become part of the teams of French doctors frantically seeking to manage the disease. This is Part Two: "The War" (against AIDS). Mehdi is terrified that he is infected, but when he learns that he isn't, his life can resume in new but not altogether different directions. Sarah, against his wishes, brings Manu's story into her adult novel. The couple makes love again, but Mehdi also begins taking Julie up in the little airplanes that were part of his courtship of Manu and she begins to replace Manu in his affections. There's a slight danger that The Witnesses will seem like a Telenovela. Manu's story ends, he drops out of the series, and a new sequence begins. The coda entitled "Summer Returns" is both premature and excessive. The film feels a bit as if it's gone on too long and doesn't really know how to end. But the point is still a valid one, at least for the cross section of society, young and old, sophisticated and naïve, creative and blocked, rich and poor, integrated into the ingenious and characteristically Téchiné-esquire story. La vie continue. The witnesses survive.
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