Michel Blanc, Emmanuelle Beart, Sami Bouajila, Julie Depardieu / Fiction / French
Perfectly cast and constructed, with a flighty energy counterbalanced by skillful storytelling and deep emotion, The Witnesses is one of 2007’s real class acts. Characters ensnared by complex emotional bonds strive for a near-impossible holy grail: true love without the compromise of personal freedoms. Their particular historical moment – the mid-80s, at the start of the AIDS crisis – further complicates the quest.
Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart), a writer, lives with policeman Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), and has just given birth to his child. She’s stuck for a new idea, but as her voiceover reveals, the story of the film will be her unblocking; we are hearing her own account. Not that Sarah glorifies herself, or closes her eyes to painful truths about the people around her. We see an angry, impatient woman; a woman disillusioned enough with motherhood to put on headphones and let her baby scream; a woman whose husband is all the while cheating on her with a beautiful young man.
The youth, Manu (Johan Libérau), is also adored by Sarah’s best friend, middle-aged doctor Adrien (Michel Blanc); but the power balance of their relationship is strictly in Manu’s favour. That is, until Adrien notices strange marks appearing on Manu’s skin, and makes the mental connection with a new virus he has read about. Secrets are suddenly thrust into the open; no-one is safe.
Though the characters are clearly “witnesses” to Manu’s brief life, the film is no eulogy to him; his shallow, thrillseeking character passes lightly through the narrative. Nor is the political handling of the AIDS epidemic the primary thrust of the narrative (although we do see its catastrophic effect upon the trade of local hookers – and the irony that Mehdi is part of the clean-up operation does not pass unnoticed). Avoiding soapboxes or obvious emotional cues, Téchiné’s film is an authentically tangled web, which captures the moment in which a generation already confused by its own freedoms was (or is) suddenly faced with a new and frightening set of constraints. The finely-calibrated script, written by the director in collaboration with Laurent Guyot and Viviane Zingg, acknowledges the confused values and petty hypocrisies by which its characters live without losing sympathy for them. When Mehdi asks Sarah if she might consider reverting to the monogamy that the couple have long scorned, she quickly responds, “No. I love you too much for that.” Manu, too, is promiscuous almost as a point of principle; and when he becomes ill, there’s the minutest sense of triumph in Adrien, who nurses him. Finally he has the boy to himself; finally, Manu is weak and dependent.
Novelistic in its scope and complexity, beautifully shot in a palette that favours scarlet and bright yellow, The Witnesses is a powerfully involving, elegant human drama.
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