The French director Andre Techine is a master at evoking
personality quirks, the unpredictability of relationships and the
haphazard way love affairs, friendships and social groups form
and dissolve. Many of his films, like "Changing Times" and "Wild
Reeds," portray a multicultural environment in which French and
North African characters mingle, sometimes uneasily.
His films are also casually sensual. The fluid sexuality of at
least one male character in most Techine films is almost a given;
the director's strong, free-spirited women are in charge of their
own sexuality to a degree rarely found in American movies, unless
those women are designated as vixens. But if the world according
to Techine is a liberated wonderland with few boundaries, living
there comfortably requires that you wear sophisticated
His newest film, "The Witnesses," set in 1984, observes this
wonderland shocked out of its complacency by the arrival of AIDS.
Suddenly a closely knit group of friends - straight, gay and
bisexual - is forced to confront the uncertainties and terrors of
the epidemic in its early days. It is imperative that they
disclose their discreetly kept sexual secrets and report their
This story of paradise lost begins with a domestic spat in the
Paris residence of a handsome couple: Sarah (Emmanuelle Beart), a
well-to-do writer of children's books, and her working-class
husband, Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), a hard-nosed police inspector of
North African descent. Mehdi is outraged at Sarah's indifference
to their newborn baby, whose cries she tunes out with earplugs
while she works. Sarah and Mehdi have a pact: both are allowed to
take outside lovers in a "don't ask, don't tell" arrangement that
seems to work, although it is not without its subliminal
Meanwhile, Sarah's close friend Adrien (Michel Blanc), a homely,
middle-aged gay doctor, prowls a popular cruising ground, where
he meets Manu (Johan Libereau), an arrogant young man who refuses
to sleep with him but agrees to be his companion and his student
of life's finer things. Wildly in love with his shallow,
narcissistic protege, Adrien is shrewd enough not to push too
hard, but there is an element of masochism in his abject
Manu, fresh from the provinces, shares space with his sister
Julie (Julie Depardieu), an aspiring opera singer, in a cheap
hotel that is a center of prostitution under scrutiny by Mehdi,
who leads the police force's vice division. But Mehdi, off duty,
is not as rigid as he appears.
Adrien and Manu, while visiting Sarah and Mehdi at her parents'
summer house on the Riviera, are treated like family. One
afternoon, when Mehdi and Manu go swimming in a remote cove,
Mehdi saves Manu from drowning and, while tugging him to shore
and administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, becomes aroused.
Later, when Manu makes a pass at Mehdi, he responds, and they
embark on a secret, no-strings-attached affair that proceeds
without a hitch until Manu becomes sick.
This beautifully acted ensemble film, which uses recurrent images
of water and aviation, unfolds in three chapters. The first
remembers the heady pre-AIDS era. The second observes the
foursome's reactions to the crisis, which for each is a test of
character and of the strength of bonds they have taken for
granted. In the third, those who remain pick up the pieces and go
"The Witnesses" sidesteps most of its opportunities for high
drama, political sermonizing and the jerking of tears. Mr.
Techine, working from a screenplay he wrote with Laurent Guyot
and Viviane Zingg, refuses to pigeonhole his characters in
comfortable niches or ethical positions. The film skips ahead
with the pace of a light romantic comedy, rarely lingering long
enough on a scene to conjure melodrama.
The heaviest moment is a bitter argument between Mehdi and Adrien
in which the policeman accuses the doctor, now a leader in the
fight against AIDS, of being jealous of his affair with Manu and
of basking in his role of noble crusader and medical know-it-all.
Adrien fires back that Mehdi, in his reluctance to get an AIDS
test and to tell Sarah about the affair, is a selfish coward.
Each is only half right.
When Sarah is eventually informed of the affair, her curiosity
about its details becomes obsessive, and she begins writing an
adult novel based on the dying Manu's AIDS journal.
But Mr. Techine refuses to pass moral judgment on any human
behavior pertaining to love and desire. His recognition that
these things are transient and constantly changing frees him to
take a longer view.
"The Witnesses" may frustrate those who prefer movies that tell
clear-cut stories in which hard lessons are learned. But in the
director's farsighted vision of life, the ground under our feet
is always shifting. As time pulls us forward, the shocks of the
past are absorbed and the pain recedes. In its light-handed way,
"The Witnesses" is profound.
Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Directed by Andre Techine; written (in French, with English
subtitles) by Mr. Techine, Laurent Guyot and Viviane Zingg;
director of photography, Julien Hirsch; edited by Martine
Giordano; music by Philippe Sarde; production designer, Michele
Abbe; produced by Sa�d Ben Sa�d; released by Strand Releasing. At
the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas, at Third Street,
Greenwich Village. Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes. This film is
WITH: Michel Blanc (Adrien), Emmanuelle Beart (Sarah), Sami
Bouajila (Mehdi), Julie Depardieu (Julie) and Johan Libereau