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Unbearable Lightness: André Téchiné‘s The Witnesses

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Unbearable Lightness: André Téchiné‘s <em>The Witnesses</em>

Ned Rorem once said that Marguerite Duras was a “first-rate second-rater.” This paradoxical comment applies equally to André Téchiné, a French director who has been working for more than thirty years with most of the big Gallic stars.

A lot of his movies have been no more than modest exercises for Jeanne Moreau, Gérard Depardieu, Isabelle Adjani, Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, and his special favorite Catherine Deneuve. His last film, Changing Times, proved that he and the always-reserved Deneuve have worked together once too often; there was nothing at stake in its story of lost love with Depardieu except a mild, pasted-on political backdrop (a Téchiné specialty which many writers have over-praised) and the need to keep these French star workhorses working, even if their danger and freshness and reason for working has long since passed. But Téchiné has grown increasingly assured in terms of technique throughout these sometimes-labored vehicles, and in his new film, The Witnesses, his mastery of editing and sensitivity to performance has resulted in his second almost-great work, after the deeply felt, flawed beauty of his mid-nineties Wild Reeds.

Téchiné, a gay man of a certain age, has brought a discreet gay man’s devotion to the many actresses he has cautiously celebrated in front of his camera. His caution keeps most of his films from reaching a higher level, but this caution is an asset when he treats gay themes up front, as he does in The Witnesses and Wild Reeds. Younger gay directors like Pedro Almodóvar, François Ozon, Gus Van Sant and others have often indulged themselves by filming beautiful young men like so many sides of beef; it’s been all too easy to pick out in their work when art stops and self-indulgent, casting couch voyeurism begins. Thus their films about gay love and hate are uncomfortably anti-erotic because they throw naked flesh at you up front, which almost always shuts down any response except the most basic sexual one, and sometimes not even that. Téchiné films Johan Libéreau, who plays Manu, the fresh-faced young boy coming of age in The Witnesses, with the sort of discretion that gives mystery and dignity to human beauty. Part of this is casting. Libéreau is not a conventional pretty boy; he’s got the kind of ordinary good looks that don’t impress you right away. But as Téchiné keeps his camera on Libéreau, Manu begins to seem more and more attractive and lovable; the director enshrines this boy’s somehow transcendent ordinariness as the movie and Manu’s increasingly archetypal character slips through your hands like loose sand.

The Witnesses begins with a furiously fast credit sequence, as we see Emmanuelle Béart ferociously type a manuscript: Téchiné grabs your attention with Phillipe Sarde’s music and the red credits themselves and the urgency of Béart’s voice on the soundtrack. It sets up the whole movie as a race against time, a remembrance that has to be held lightly if it isn’t to vanish into thin air. Confidently, even masterfully, Téchiné sets his people in delicate motion, which include writer Sarah (Béart), her lover Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), and her doctor friend Adrien (Michel Blanc), a flinty older man (and director surrogate?) who falls in love with Libéreau’s Manu, even holding his jacket for him when he goes cruising in a park. Adrien takes Manu to meet Sarah and Mehdi, and what follows is one of the most dazzlingly edited seduction scenes in movie history, as Manu and Mehdi decide to go take a swim together.

The man and the boy move into deep water, and then Manu plummets down to the bottom of the sea, crying out for help as air bubbles explode out of his mouth. Téchiné holds on the bubbles for just the right amount of time for you to feel the panic of drowning, then moves his camera in very close to the boy’s flailing body as Mehdi pulls him back up to the surface (Manu’s long, delicate foot fills the widescreen for a moment before we come back up for air). The close camera and quick cutting give us a palpable sense of confusion, fear and excitement as Mehdi pulls Manu to shore, then gives him mouth to mouth. The water finally bursts out of Manu’s mouth, and Mehdi cradles and caresses him, naturally, yet tenderly, to bring him back to life. Sex and death have rarely been so closely intertwined in a movie scene, and Téchiné gives you the distinct feeling that death is the stronger of the two. Death hovers over everything in The Witnesses. This near-drowning scene is so rapturously filmed that we can believe the mainly heterosexual Mehdi would find himself sexually drawn to the vulnerable Manu, and that their ensuing sexual relationship would cast ripples on all the other characters in the film.

The Witnesses takes place in 1984. When, mid-movie, Manu starts to see the effects of HIV on his vibrantly healthy body, it comes as a cruel shock. Fifteen to twenty years ago, AIDS infection used to be everywhere in movies, so that a character getting the virus almost became a thoroughly depressing camp routine. Téchiné brings this tragedy back to us and makes us feel it in a fresh way that was perhaps not possible at the time of the largest, most sudden losses. He does it the same way he creates love and sexuality on screen: by his tact, and by withholding wide-eyed staring at the effects of disease as he also withholds nudity and copulation (Béart’s luscious nude body is presented in the shower with a kind of objective admiration). Téchiné moves his narrative along with a perilous kind of speed, as if he’s improvising the whole film by the seat of his pants, and this speed doesn’t feel young: it’s mature in a way we seldom see in a film director of any age or in any country. We can feel that Téchiné has felt desire, has felt loss, and is bearing witness to it toughly and almost serenely, so that The Witnesses feels like a French New Wave movie, then like a novel, then like life, then like a bittersweet, uniquely paced movie again. Minor flaws, like some poor writing in confrontation scenes between Mehdi and Adrien, don’t really matter, finally. I’ve been haunted by the image of Manu falling to the bottom of the sea and crying for help since I saw The Witnesses two weeks ago. I can’t get it out of my mind because Téchiné has packed a lifetime of technique and emotion into mourning the loss of all the Manus we lost to AIDS in the eighties and beyond. They left a void in our culture that has still not been filled.

House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.