Saturday, January 17, 2009

Review: Les Témoins

The Witnesses (2007, André Téchiné)
Starting in 1984 in Paris, we meet the young, easy going and charming Adrien, played by Michel Blanc, who lives in a whore house with his sister (Julie Dépadrieu) who is in fact is a singer, not a whore. He is a gay young adult living life in with a very 'devil may care' attitude. Sexual encounters in the park and a care-free attitude make him a highly desirable body in the gay community. He makes friends with a middle aged doctor, and while their bonding is a sweet affair at first, it eventually leads to a chain of painful emotions. You see, the doctor knows a young married couple, Sarah and Mehdi. Sarah is a writer and Mehdi a police officer. They are currently experiencing their own marital issues. Infidelity is a reality, but Sarah claims in all honesty that she cares little as to whether or not Mehdi meets other people. He finds this baffling at first, but through their doctor friend, he meets Adrien, and the two begin a rather passionate affair after some initial flirtation. The doctor eventually learns of this from Adrien, and his friendship with Mehdi is never the same again. When Adrien discovers that he has contracted a formerly unknown disease called AIDS, things go from bad to worse.

This is of course a tragedy, but one filled with great humanity. The acting is strong across the board. Michel Blanc injects Adrien with a hyouthful energy and playfulness the role demands. Sami Bouajla as Mehdi is arguably the actor who is given the most to do emotionally. When playing the cop, he is tough and can't show weaknesses, but as a husband and Adrien's lover, he is terribly fallible and falls prey to his emotional instincts. He is performing an impossible balancing act between his genuine passion he feels for Adrien, whom he cannot marry, and the slowly crumbling partnership with his wife Sarah. Emmanuelle Béart plays the flip-flopping wife. She loves Mehdi to a certain extent but can't deal with the investment a marriage and motherhood demands. She claims it has to do with the baby being too much of a distraction while she attempts to write her novel, but it becomes evident that she quite simply isn't cut out for married life, or at least utmost devotion to one person. Quirky, fun, but also frustrating all at once, Sarah is the mirror image of Adrien's character in the film, which makes it all the more ironic that Mehdi is caught between these very two people. Julie Dépardieu, although a fine actress, is unfortunately relegated to a minimal supporting role. Her screen time is well under those of the other actors involved and her screen presence doesn't measure up either.

The time period is fascinating since we get to see these close friends witness the early outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. Up until then the illness was a complete unknown. When it began to make headlines, people's notions of carefree sexual encounters changed to a certain degree. The outbreak of AIDS also didn't do any favors to the gay communities around the globe. Homosexuality was chastised before, but it really took a beating in the mid 1980s. Les Témoins is a well told story, preferring a intimate view into the AIDS crisis rather than a more epic, overview. The tragedy of the situation is seen through the eyes of a select few who witness the fall of one of their own. There are some poignant scenes in which characters ask their doctor friend, who has taken Adrien into his home to rest, how the young man will survive and what can be medically done to save him. The doctor replies that, despite their best efforts, the medical community is at a loss to explain why this virus has arrived or what can be done to fight it. It is powerful in that it captures what it must have been like when notion of this unheard of disease broke. Panic, uncertainty, distress, etc. Aside from a few scenes that perhaps feel a tad forced and unnatural, everything unfolds in realistic fashion.

The characters relations are well written and well developed. This is the driving element of the story. The movie cannot be pigeonholed into some kind of 'gay relationship' movie. There is far more at stake. Fidelity as well as infidelity and where it can take you, the dawn of a new era in notions about safe sex, and of course romantic love. Director Téchiné has sowed a complex character piece that I would encourage anyone who appreciates good drama to check out.

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