Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The picture tells us how The Witnesses approaches the subject of AIDS in mid eighties France: insouciantly. We know – the characters vaguely know – the threat, but we're having too much fun to take precautions. Although not the subtle psychosexual ballet that director André Téchiné's 1995 masterpiece Wild Reeds was, The Witnesses has the earlier film's democracy of spirit. Téchiné doesn't linger too long on any one character; if the dialogue is at times didactic rather than realistic, the performances and the delicateness with which he sets his characters in motion amidst settings almost too worthy of postcards create their own pleasure. The filigrees of ethnic tension between the Muslim Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), wife Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart), and lover Manu (Johan Libéreau) is handled with an offhanded probity that's a relief from the metaphysical exertions of Caché and, shall we say, the static post-colonialist erotica of Clair Denis' Beau Travail. Nothing is held too long here. The characters behave as people with appetites first; no wonder the film shows Béart typing her novel, the foursome dancing on a sunlit veranda, and enjoying a boat excursion in the first twenty minutes. The exception – Michel Blanc as Manu's older lover, too smart and too generous for his own good – doesn't force others to reckon with his appetites until he's consumed by them.

Most refreshing, Téchiné doesn't photograph Libéreau's Manu as sun-kissed manflesh, as Denis or François Ozon would have (Ozon's Time To Leave stands as this film's sweet, sickly counterpart). From the first instant he flashes his big-toothed grin we're all goners, and the director has the good sense not to push his luck. Manu's beauty is really an extension of his youth, and as ephemeral. Similarly, we're not asked to gawk at Béart's nudeness in a scene in which Bouajila talks to her while she's showering. These men and women are as comfortable with their bodies as with sport (the scent of sweat and grass is as strong here as in Wild Reeds), which makes the disease's onset more devastating. While not quite its equal, The Witnesses plays like a celluloid adaptation of the Pet Shop Boys' "Being Boring"

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