Dir: Andre Techine. France. 2007. 115mins
Techine powerfully reasserts his status as one of European cinema's most adult film-makers in Witnesses, a complex, assured evocation of the mid-80s, when French society was first confronted with the reality of Aids. In a simple narrative framework - made a touch more complex by the fact that one of the characters is writing a novel about these events - Techine and his co-writers vividly re-create a period of seismic socio-sexual transformation, managing to evoke its effects both on a wider and a more intimate personal scale.
A complex but economical and bracingly-paced narrative, plus vividly hued photography give Witnesses the potential for strong mainstream art-house sales, and long-lasting ancillary appeal. Its festival prospects look rock solid.
A multi-stranded ensemble piece, somewhat in the tenor of his Alice Et Martin and Les Voleurs, Witnesses shows once again that Techine is, if anything, anovelist who happens to write in film.
A slow-burning narrative covers one year, from summer '84 to summer '85. Manu (Libereau) is a young man newly arrived in Paris from the Pyrenees, staying with his opera singer sister Julie (Depardieu), and eager to get involved in the city's gay cruising scene.
Middle-aged doctor Adrien (Blanc) falls for him, takes him under his wing and introduces him to his friend Sarah (Beart), a writer of children's books. She is in an open relationship with Vice Squad cop Mehdi (Bouajila), the father of her newborn baby: right now, she's finding that her first adult novel preoccupies her considerably more than motherhood.
An unexpected affair between Mehdi and Manu is the first bombshell that disrupts this seemingly stable group; the next is the discovery that Manu is one of the first generation of gay men to contract Aids.
An involved but lucid script sparely evokes a dramatic period during which sexual and social attitudes changed with alarming rapidity. In the second section, entitled 'War', the hitherto carefree if blase Adrien mobilises himself as a committed Aids specialist: this is the only part of the film in which the tone turns slightly pedagogical.
Beart's slightly rebarbative character, oddly, seems a little marginalised in the overall narrative, although this arguably goes hand in hand with her binding the strands together as voice-over narrator.
Michel Blanc, allowed more gravitas than in his usual lighter roles, brings a mature intensity to his part, and Bouajila, as a man uncertain of his sexual and social identity, embues the macho Mehdi with mercurial unpredictability.
The star turn, however, is Libereau, who convincingly carries Manu from his summer as a narcissistic golden boy to winter as an angry, instantly aged casualty of an illness that (as the film powerfully reminds us) was very much a mystery at the period.
An acute sense of social history - and welcome restraint in using period colour - makes Witnesses an altogether compelling (if narratively, somewhat inconclusive auteur piece). Julien Hirsch's radiant lensing, intensifying reds, yellows and blues, makes Witnesses a visual tonic too.
SaId Ben Saïd
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