The Witnesses

2007, Movie, NR, 112 mins


With HIV infection once again on the rise among a whole new generation of young gay men who remain blissfully, fatally unaware of the recent past, Andre Techine's drama about AIDS in the 80s is not the historical look back at he might have intended. Sadly, it's become tragically relevant.

Paris, 1984. Manu (Johan Libereau) is a strikingly handsome young man from a small town in the Pyrenees who shows up unannounced on the doorstep of his sister, Julie (Julie Depardieu), an aspiring opera singer. Since her own arrival in Paris, Julie has been living in the red-light district of the city in a seedy residential hotel that in reality is little more than a brothel. No sooner does Manu unpack his bags than he heads out to the one place where he knows a good-looking gay man on the loose in Paris can find all the casual sex he could want -- the public park -- and its there he meets Adrien (Michel Blanc), a squat, middle-aged doctor who attempts to pick him up. Manu makes it perfectly clear that he has no interest in having sex with him -- he does, however, ask him to look after his jacket while he heads off into the bushes -- but Adrien is nevertheless smitten. Offering to show Manu all Paris has to offer, he and Manu quickly grow close -- frustratingly close, as far as a lovesick Adrien is concerned -- and Adrien soon introduces him to one of his few friends: Sarah (Emmanuelle Beart), a successful children's book writer who's recently had a baby of her own. Her husband, Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), is the chief detective of the vice squad who, coincidentally, has been aggressively attempting to clean up Julie's neighborhood. Sarah has been working on her first adult novel -- something called "Eros" -- but motherhood, she finds, is a distraction. The new baby, whom Sarah and Mehdi haven't yet named, gets on her nerves and she's too exhausted by its constant demands to concentrate. Needing a break, Sarah and Mehdi head to Sarah's mother's house by the sea and invite Adrien and Manu for a weekend. Sarah immediately sees Manu for the incorrigible but harmless flirt he is, but surprisingly, it's Mehdi who finds himself sexually attracted to him. Not long after the weekend is over, and completely unbeknownst to Adrien or Sarah, Mehdi and Manu become lovers. The relationship continues even after Manu moves to a fixed campsite in the country where he gets a job in the kitchen, but when Adrien finally pays him a visit and discovers the truth of the affair, he lashes out -- until he notices the lesions on Manu's chest. Manu soon becomes desperately sick and hides away in his room at the campsite, refusing to allow Mehdi to see him. Only Adrien knows the true extent of Manu's illness, and he throws himself and all his resources into trying to understand this new disease that has the world's medical community baffled.

With the possible exception of gentle, non-judgmental Julie, this is hardly a likeable crowd. Mehdi is a macho homophobe with something to prove; Sarah is a selfish hedonist whose indifference to her baby borders on the pathological; Adrien is a petulant, overgrown child who sulks when things don't go quite is way and seems to secretly relish the fact that the AIDS ravaged Manu is finally his and his alone; and Manu is a callow opportunist who coasts on his beauty, untroubled by the effect he has on others. When disaster strikes they remain true to form, and if they emerge from the crisis at all changed, it's only slightly. Techine's unwillingness to soften his characters reflects a rare honesty about human nature that's rarely seen in movies, particularly movies about fatal illnesses, and his film is an engaging and particularly French character study -- just the kind of thing Techine is very, very good at. His depiction of the onslaught of AIDS is curiously pragmatic and a little clunky, but then again, perhaps it is time we all got a refresher course in AIDS awareness and its terrible consequences. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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The Witnesses
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