• Pages

  • Site Sections

  • Tags

  • Archives

The Witnesses (Les Temoins) – a grown up film about sex, love, friendship, loyalty



The Witnesses (Les Témoins) – Andre Téchiné

Unsentimental but compassionate: non-judgemental but raising complex moral issues of sexuality, friendship, love and loyalty: does any nation so consistently produce such grown up, wise and thoughtful films about life, love and human relationships as the French? In the last 6 months alone Coeurs (Resnais), The Singer (Giannoli), Gabrielle (Cloreau) and many more.

Whatever may be the reality of contemporary French society as a whole they have a long philosophical and cinematic tradition of understanding sexuality as far too important to take too seriously; of never equating sexuality with love; of understanding the paradox of love as the desire to possess the freely given. And a recognition of the corrosive affects of ownership in personal relationships, especially sexual.

It is 1984: Manu (Johan Libéreau) is young, beautiful and contentedly gay. A free spirit he roams gay bars or the parks for passionate, pick-up, serial sex. Here he meets medical professor Adrien (a superb Michel Blanc), balding, twice his age, needing love and affection but desperately wanting sexual release. Having first gently mocked Adrien’s age, Manu chases after him to hold his coat while Manu has sex in the bushes with a younger partner. If this all sounds squalid and seedy I guess it is, but Téchiné’s camera gives it all the matter-of-factness of a young man asking an older man to look after his coat while he has fun playing football for a while. Critically it also establishes at the outset Manu’s complete lack of affectation and simple direct truthfulness. From the start Adrien is offered something unusual and precious to Manu – friendship – he has all the sex he wants, with younger, more attractive men. That Adrien grasps at a friendship that for him develops into love and cherishes the possibility of sexual expression of that deepening feeling, is just one of the many strands of the often tragic aspect of human desire and passion to be found in Téchiné’s multi-layered film.

Manu lives with his aspiring opera-singing sister Julie (Julie Depardieu) renting a cheap flat in a brothel in the red light district of Paris. Julie’s ambition pre-occupies her to the exclusion of any criticism of her beloved brother’s promiscuous lifestyle. Manu’s engaging personality endears him to everyone and of course this makes Adrien love him more.

Vice-squad cop Mehdi (Sami Bouajila) and children’s book writer Sarah (Béart – luminous as usual – but regular readers will know by now not to trust my critical objectivity about beautiful French actresses) have a new baby that cries a lot which disturbs Sarah’ return to writing to a degree that Mehdi has qualms about post-natal depression. While there, he is very hands-on with the baby but distrusts Sarah’s mothering when he is out. They struggle to make ends meet. Mehdi is ambitious and waging a war to clean up the red light district where Manu lives by allowing the prostitutes to work as long as they betray their pimps to Mehdi.

Sarah and Adrien are long-term friends and when she invites him to her wealthy mother’s house by the sea he takes Manu. When Manu get into difficulties swimming Mehdi rescues him and has to give him the kiss of life. This presages Mehdi’s realisation of what Manu already instinctively knows – that he is bi-sexual and desires Manu. The sexual affair that develops between Manu and Mehdi again is conveyed with a simple directness with none of the self-conscious sub-text or judgemental signals characteristic of Anglo-Saxon directors. It is the complexity of their sexual intimacy as human beings that is portrayed; that it is a homosexual one is merely a fact not a value, good or bad. Of course given Mehdi’s job, some discretion is required but such constraints are typical of heterosexual affairs too.

Sarah and Mehdi have an open sexual relationship, each having other partners. But this is an equal arrangement, as much Sarah’s choice as Mehdi’s. As she says, she needs other partners so as not to feel trapped and claustrophobic within her relationship with Mehdi. Although she knows of his sleeping around, she says she has enough confidence in her own sexuality to believe that he will always find it best with her. (Personally I believe her, but that’s another story). Trying to graduate from childrens’ books to an adult novel emphasises her struggle with an underlying lack of traditional and expected maternal feelings together with her resentment of the distraction from her work a baby inevitably constitutes.

When Manu leaves Paris to work on a fixed camp-site in the south Mehdi visits him and their affair continues. Desolate and lonely without Manu in his life, Adrien visits him, discovers his affair with Mehdi and loses it. After a brief fight Adrien is alarmed to see weals and lesions on Manu’s body. Through a montage of news reports and images, Téchiné effectively conveys the sense of the first recognition of what was to become called AIDS; and the panic and terror the realisation of its deadliness and main means of transmission caused.

The last third of the film, tracing Manu’s gradual decline and Adrien’s devoted care for him while becoming deeply in involved in what was even then called the ‘war’ on AIDS, should be depressing. But it isn’t. Sad, at times distressing, but the sheer compassion and clear-eyed showing, not telling, of Téchiné’s direction and screenplay shows an unusually diverse and very real group of people whose complex inter-relationships are challenged to respond to the demands and tragedy that life throws up. And each in their different way does respond positively with different but genuine forms of acceptance and a determination to move forward with the gift of life that has been taken, tragically early from Manu.

Although the initial hysterical reaction to the Gay community is hinted at, rightly I think Téchiné doesn’t dwell on it for that would inject a judgemental, political, even sentimental tone into a movie whose greatest strength is precisely to eschew this approach throughout.

There is no hint of Manu being ‘punished’. If as the film progresses our respect for Mehdi diminishes, our contradictory feelings about Sarah remain unresolved; and our sympathy and respect for Adrien grows, then that is as it perhaps would be in reality. Certainly the authenticity of each carefully drawn character is never sacrificed to the exigencies of plot. There is a real sense of the characters in this film carrying on their lives beyond it – something a neat little narrative circle would destroy.

So much that happens, good and bad, in Les Témoins, arises from the choices and actions of the people within it. But that is not the whole story. It recalls for me one of the telling aphorisms that head each Chapter of George Eliot’s Middlemarch:

First Gentleman: “Methinks our chains are fetters that we forge ourselves.”
Second Gentleman: “Aye but methinks ‘tis the world that brings the iron.”

(January 2008)

Leave a Reply