Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"The Witnesses" (Film Review)

In his new film "The Witnesses," the talented French filmmaker Andre Techine serves up an insightful study of human foibles and strengths. The film is dramatic, without ever being melodramatic. It is instructive, but never preachy. Techine probes complicated characters whose intertwined lives are tied to a specific place and time in history. And these lives are defined by enigma and contradictions.

All the characters' lives revolve around Manu (newcomer Johan Libereau), a young attractive, somewhat naive, guy from the country who's just come to Paris, in 1984, to move in with his opera-singer sister (Julie Depardieu). This being an historical drama situated between the pre and post AIDS eras, Techine presents Manu's after-dark park cruising with devil-may-care abandon. Manu's first encounter, though not a sexual one, was surprisingly with the middle-aged doctor Adrien (Michel Blanc), who becomes a platonic friend cum spiritual companion, albeit one who harbors a crush on Manu. Complicating matters, Adrien introduces Manu to his married friends, writer Sarah (Emmanulle Beart) and vice-squad detective Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), who have just had their first baby. Sarah learns through the experience that, despite her books, she does not like children. Her husband despairs when she neglects the child, does what he can to fill in, and sometimes parks the child with his parents.

Then on one weekend Sarah and Mehdi invite Adrien and Manu to her mother's house at the seaside. The two younger men go swimming in the sea. But Manu finds himself in trouble, and he nearly drowns. Mehdi saves his life, and what happens next is a surprise to both men, and it is a turn in the movie that will have profound implications for Sarah as well.

One day Adrien sees lesions on Manu's chest and diagnoses him as a victim of the new disease he has started to see in his practice. Thus, the ramifications of this infection for all five characters become manifested and from this point onwards, the dramatic tension in the movie escalates.

Throughout the film, we see the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and even professions. All the actors turn in fine, nuanced performances. There is no excessive emotional angst here. For gay men, this film reminds us of the dangers of that decade of the 1980s. Even though the film has erotic naturalism, it never ignores the consequences of sexual freedom. See this film for sure. It is in French, with english subtitles, and runs about 112 minutes and is unrated though contains mature subject matter.

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