André Téchiné is a master at taking life experiences and stripping them of sentimentality, leaving us with only the bare-bones honesty of relationships and desire. It makes for some blunt and uncomplicated filmmaking. It’s like having an argument with your spouse, where both of you are at your most lucid and least emotional. And the difficult conversation you end up having doesn’t leave you drained and confused, but self-actualized, maybe even invigorated.
The Witnesses is that kind of conversation. Set in the inauspicious year of 1983, the film is about a young man who suddenly enters the lives of five people in varying degrees of intimacy and then just as suddenly dies of AIDS. Played with appropriate nonchalance and barely a soupcon of “queer” mannerisms by Johan Libereau, Manu is a young, nice-looking and uninhibited gay man who has just moved to Paris from the provinces to live his life as sexually and experientially as he can.
Unlike Philadelphia, the American film that registered the effects—both physical and social—of the AIDS epidemic on a gay man who contracts the disease (for which Tom Hanks won an Oscar), The Witnesses is a much more representative version of the young and sexually promiscuous gay community that was first and foremost ravaged by the disease. Having lived through that epidemic’s devastating first years that took so many young gay men in the 80s, Téchiné must have known first-hand the kind of gay man Manu represents, the first generation to wear their sexual promiscuity as a philosophical ideal as much as a lifestyle. For a brief moment, there was a refreshing pride in not only embracing one’s sexual preference, but indulging it without fear.
As authentic as Manu’s character feels, Téchiné’s handiwork with the other characters whose lives Manu touches—the witnesses of the title—feels more contrived. It’s as if Téchiné is so hell-bent on making sweeping statements about social mores and freedoms, that he forces the other characters into caricatures rather than real people. Or perhaps, as a result of stripping them of anything that reeks of the sentimental, he accidentally erased their complicated hearts as well. Manu’s older gay friend, a medical doctor named Adrien—who takes Manu under his wing and introduces him to the others—is the most leaden of all. We recognize the stereotype—the middle-aged homosexual with money and status whose sexuality is subdued by age and convention. And later, he’s the AIDS awareness movement’s impassioned spokesman, spouting like a documentarian the medical research involved in understanding and combating the virus. As played by Michel Blanc, Adrien seems harsh, humorless, displaying all the outer trappings of the gay world (including a completely bald head and those crisp white shirts) but none of the inner stuff. He’s a stereotype, and stereotypes don’t elicit much interest, in the end.
Manu’s youth and sexual openness may be a magnet for gay men like Adrien, but when he manages to break down the barriers of a supposed straight man (Sami Bouajila), it feels like a contrivance. This is not just any straight man, but a vice cop who also happens to be married to the voluptuous Emmanuelle Béart. Mehdi’s sudden ardor for Manu just doesn’t feel right, especially when Mehdi seems to accept it so casually. There is no chest beating agony over finding himself attracted to another man, much less schtooping him on a daily basis for months, which Mehdi does with the ease of a natural born. Mehdi’s bisexuality comes at us with so little fanfare that it must be accepted as common behavior. No big deal, Téchiné seems to be saying.
But isn’t that every gay man’s fantasy after all, the idea that even straight men have a touch of the homosexual in their blood? The same could be said for lesbians, too, for that matter. The consummate gay intellectual Gore Vidal championed the belief that we’re all basically bisexual. It seems that André Téchiné agrees with him.
Whatever one believes about human sexuality becomes secondary, however, once the spectre of AIDS appears to muck up the works. Manu’s illness forces the others to bare their feelings, and the debate that transpires between Mehdi and a highly self-righteous Adrien (suddenly the tables are turned) is a profound conversation about casting moral judgments on human behavior. Mehdi defends his right to sexual freedom, and his argument makes sense, even as Adrien’s own distaste at Mehdi’s selfishness feels as true. Téchiné manages to put the whole debate about sexuality and propriety squarely on the table, and in the end, we come away realizing that in such debates, there are no absolute truths.
The Witnesses is, finally, an intellectual exploration of how we decide to live our lives. It’s refreshing to watch a filmmaker explore non-traditional feelings and attitudes that aren’t subdued by the iron fist of convention—and Téchiné not only sees beyond the traditional parameters of sexuality, but also motherhood and marriage as well. Emmanuelle Beart’s character is a new mother whose maternal instinct somehow didn’t kick in at the birth of her child. It’s quite shocking to see her neglect her baby, and not even be full of self-loathing about it. What most would consider unforgivable, Téchiné quite bravely treats as one of many paths of motherhood. He pays similar tribute to Manu’s sister’s penchant for solitude, a life without men or children. Julie’s preference for a life apart from relational intimacy is in marked contrast to her brother’s need for exhibition and the pleasures found with others. Téchiné is not here to pass judgment, but to acknowledge that life has many paths, all equally worth understanding.
The Witnesses is in the end a treatise proclaiming this freedom of conduct, the desire to not be pigeonholed, or condemned because of difference. What better paean to all the men whose lives were cut short by AIDS than this.