Wednesday, June 21, 2017

André Téchiné | Les Témoins (The Witnesses)

moments of pleasure
by Douglas Messerli

André Téchiné, Laurent Guyot, and Vivianne Zingg (screenplay), André Téchiné (director) Les Témoins (The Witnesses) / 2007, USA 2008
As the plural of his title suggests, André Téchiné’s 2007 film, The Witnesses is about several people’s lives, people who come together at varying moments throughout the work through their love and friendship for a young provincial French boy, Manu (Johan Libéreau). Although one might superficially describe him as narcissistic and empty-headed, Manu has a kind of innocent joyfulness of life that attracts nearly everyone he meets. He seems incapable of judging anyone he encounters and is absolutely assured that in his move to Paris he will succeed.

In fact, he almost does get everything he wants. Moving in with his would-be opera singer sister, Julie (Julie Depardieu), who just happens to live in an apartment devoted to prostitution, Manu is delighted in his new lodgings, and quickly makes friends with a neighborhood prostitute, Sandra (Constance Dollé).

      Soon after, we see Manu checking out a gay cruising park, where he meets the middle-aged doctor, Adrien (Michel Blanc); he turns down Adrien’s offer for sex, but nonetheless befriends him by strangely asking him to hold his jacket while he goes into the brambles for sex with a younger man.

     Self-doubting, and at an age when the young men he seeks are generally not attracted, Adrien takes up with the willing Manu as a kind of adopted son, showing him the sites of Paris, while the former cook, Manu, shows the older man how to make a chocolate tart and how to simply enjoy life by watching another basking in its pleasures.

     As the head inspector for vice, Mehdi (Sami Bouajila) comes into to Manu’s life when he warns the young man not to spend time at the prostitute’s bar across the street from where he lives. The prostitutes complain that Mehdi, who regularly arrests their clients, is putting a dent on their livelihoods.

     Another actor is this rambling and somewhat coincidental narrative is Mehdi’s wife, Sarah  (Emmanuelle Béart), a woman from a wealthy background who writes children’s books, yet who, having just birthed her own child, finds herself with few maternal instincts, often drowning out the cries of her baby by tuning with music plugs so that she can write. It is Mehdi who mostly cares for his child. And the selfish Sarah discovers that she has writer’s bloc.

     Although the two clearly love one another, Mehdi and Sarah have an open relationship in which they don’t discuss their other partners. Although some tensions arise, as in so many Téchiné films, they seem to get along nicely with a situation that many Americans might find untenable.

     In fact, almost all of these figures might seem failed “outsiders” to the American way of thinking. Manu, the easy-going gay boy who befriends prostitutes, the professional gay doctor Adrien, the North African police inspector who while cracking down on prostitution, has a basically tender personality and is easy-going in his own personal relationships, and his wife Sandra who finds herself unable to care for her own newborn, to live lives that few American films might portray.

      The plot thickens when Mehdi and Sarah return to her mother’s Riveria summerhouse for vacation, and Adrien (also a friend of the couple) and Manu are asked to join them. Upon a boating trip together, Mehdi and Manu determine to take a swim, while Adrien and Sarah stay behind to nap in the sun.

      Mehdi is a strong swimmer, but Manu soon tires and, in attempting to return to shore, nearly drowns. He is saved by Mehdi, who is forced to give him mouth to mouth resuscitation, and, in the process, becomes sexually aroused.

      A few days later, Mehdi, who in his early mornings flies planes, offers to take Manu on a flight. The young boy attempts to rub Mehdi’s thigh, but the elder rejects his attentions; although when they return to the ground, the two do have sex in the nearby woods.

      Mehdi finds Manu a job at the restaurant in a suburban Paris camping site, regularly visiting the grounds to have sex with Manu in the camper where the boy sleeps.

      Adrien, meanwhile, missing his young charge, visits the camp to check up on Manu, and gets drunk as he discovers that the boy has dumped him for Mehdi.               
         When Adrien angrily pummels the boy on his chest, he suddenly discovers that his fists have left dark imprints on Manu’s body, and he realizes that Manu may have a new virus that is being reported worldwide: AIDS.

      In an attempt to save him, it is now Adrien who cares for the boy, while working nearly night and day to find a cure for the disease. Mehdi, who is now refused entry to the camp, forces his way in to confront Manu, discovering in the process that the boy is seriously ill.

      He gets an AIDS test and now must tell his wife of his affair with Manu. Both discover that they are negative, and, after a temporary breakup, they reconcile.

Now hospitalized, Manu begins to record his story on tape, and his sister, who has now been offered an opera role, comes to visit him. Adrien offers to take the now dying Manu to her opera debut, but Manu, not an opera-lover he proclaims, refuses the offer.

      Soon after, the boy takes pills (Mehdi had previously taken off the gun Manu had kept his under his pillow), committing suicide. Julie and Adrien take him back to his native village to be buried.

       Sarah, in the meantime, after listening to Manu’s tapes, begins an adult book on the group’s story, reassuring Mehdi that she will not use their real names. In fact, the movie we are seeing appears to be a version of her book, her own voice often interrupting the narrative with commentary. And by the film’s end, Sarah discovers that she too is now HIV-positive.

       The next summer, Sarah, Mehdi, along with Adrien and a new friend, a young American named Steve, gather once again on the Riviera to celebrate the birthday of the married couple’s child.

      If the screenplay by André Téchiné, Laurent Guyot, and Vivianne Zingg is a kind of rambling event that lays out its details without authorial content, we also recognize that the story it tells represents only a brief period of time when these individuals witnessed the beginning of a terrible plague that ground to a halt, presumably, their very laid back attitudes toward sex. Yet for all that, it appears, their personal relationships remained firm, and their openness to one another as complex beings seems to be an important link between them that despite what they have gone through or what might face them in the future, will remain. Téchiné does not focus on the horror of Manu’s dying, presenting us with a dark vision that dramatizes events, but rather encourages us to think of the joyful moments that have truly made up their lives. As the director himself argues: 

                        It is good time shared, not compassion in bad times, 
                        that makes good friends. As Sarah’s mother says 
                        in the film it’s a miracle being alive. And it is this 
                        sense of miracle that I wanted to conclude and 
                        open the film, broadening the horizon by revisiting 
                        spaces that Manu has inhabited and rediscovering 
                        them without him, with another character 
                        traveling through. Perhaps loving Manu and bearing 
                        witnesses to his life makes the other protagonists 

     This film, unlike, for example, a work such as Jonathan Demme’s 1993 drama Philadelphia is not about AIDS. The Witnesses is about a group of people who give witness to the living and love of life, not death. If death is the tragic ending of one in their midst—one deeply loved by many of them—obviously it will also be the end for all of them. Questions such as “Will Sarah now also get sick?”; “Will Mehdi seek out other gay relationships?”; “Will Adrien find true love with his new American friend?”; “Will Julie be happy in her new operatic career?” simply don’t matter.

     Like “the witnesses” of these few days of their lives, so too are we witnessing others in a few brief moments that help to make up the meaning of our lives. I can think of no better testament to what matters in life than this cinematic metaphor. As witnesses to such art, we too can enrich our lives and open us to others.

Los Angeles, June 21, 2017

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