The Witnesses Movie Review
By Prairie Miller
While the themes of French director Andre Techine's The Witnesses (Les Temoins) may be timely and significant - The AIDS epidemic and conflicts specific to gay relationships - the ensuing drama and crafting of this alternately muted and flippant tale aren't helpful, in summoning either empathy or conviction. So unlikable, or in the least annoying are the characters in this ensemble of otherwise gifted actors, that the very crucial subject of AIDS is unfortunately diminished.
Sami Bouajila and Emmanuelle Beart are Mehdi and Sarah, a young married Parisian couple who have just had a child. Mehdi is a moralistic cop who's into staging raids on brothels like he has terrorists cornered. Oddly enough, his personal life is bereft of any moral convictions. He's married the wealthy Sarah for her money, and while enjoying her sexually, he's routinely unfaithful. But Sarah is just fine with his promiscuity, because she keeps various lovers on the side too, in what is portrayed as a marriage of complete openness and utter indifference.
Sarah has other aggravating issues at hand as well. She finds herself repulsed by motherhood, and wears earplugs to drown out her infants wails, in order to concentrate on a novel she's been writing with great difficulty. Here writer's block and perhaps post-partum depression intertwine, as the birth of both her writing and her child are accompanied by overwhelming stress. But not much at all is made of this intriguing theme, because Sarah is a character who seems to be kept around in this film simply to give permission to her husband to sleep around and move the guilt-free plot along, whatever.
Enter Manu (Johan Libereau), an arrogant, promiscuous homosexual youth who tags along with the elderly Adrien (Michel Blanc), a gay doctor who adores him, for a jaunt at Mehdi and Sarah's summer retreat. While the infatuated Adrien secretly lusts after Manu's youthful body, the young man who's merely flattered, plays along just to periodically mock and humiliate him. And soon Mehdi is lusting after Adrien himself, with covert trysts in the bushes.
But since it's the 1980's and the AIDS epidemic is just beginning to rear its head unbeknownst to all these charactes, the various indiscriminate and interchangeable romances come to an abrupt halt, with the possibility of sudden imminent death looming in the midst of these assorted ho-hum couples. The Witnesses then switches into guessing game mode, as each tries to figure out who's got the infection.
French films, including The Witnesses, seem to rarely break out of a rigid mold, in which no matter what the themes may be, they're dropped into a pre-existing, predictable, and usually fairly dull format. That is, lots of gab, a little flesh flashing, more gab, and little action or momentum. In other words, talking that takes the place of acting.
French Kissing, Brokeback Mountain style.
In French with English subtitles
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