The Witnesses (Les Témoins) Review
Like many of André Téchiné’s films, The Witnesses (Les Témoins) is centred around an innocent young man or woman who comes to Paris from the provinces, looking for love and a more adventurous lifestyle, one that allows them to freely express their sexuality. The reality however is often quite different from what these young people imagine, and some of them adjust their perceptions and expectations, while others end up being casualties of the times. Documenting the progress of the AIDS epidemic in France from its outbreak in the mid-80s through to the impact it has on people in the present day who have lived trough it, that common theme in Téchiné films takes on even greater meaning here, one often alluded to but never directly confronted. The Witnesses represents the director’s vision to such an extent that it seems to have been the story he has long been waiting to tell and it’s perhaps only through the passage of time and a period of coming to terms that Téchiné finds himself capable of tackling the subject head-on.
It’s this modern-day perspective, looking back on the period from the view of a writer who finds herself at the heart of the AIDS scare, that gives the film this necessary distance and sobriety. It also gives the film an authenticity without nostalgia for the opening "happy days" of summer 1984, a brief period that quickly gives way to the "war" of the winter of 84/85, when the impact of the AIDS epidemic starts to really take its toll and affect the lives of so many people. The contrast between the summer of love and winter of war is characteristic of Téchiné’s strong but conventional formalism, but his true ability lies in what he does within this structure.
Principally, it’s the forging of strong, realistic, well-defined characters, but also through the subtle links and connections he draws between them that hold the film together. Apart from Manu (Johan Libéreau), the young man from the country enjoying the freedom of his sexuality in the city and Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart), as noted, the writer reflecting on the period, there is Sarah’s husband Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), a vice squad detective who is able to witness first-hand the early spread of the disease through prostitutes, drug-users and the underground gay community in the bars monitored by the police. When their open marriage brings Medhi into contact with a homosexual lover, it is shown how the disease can spread further into the heterosexual community. Their friend Adrien (Michel Blanc) is a doctor, who nurses a young man dying of AIDS through to the final stages of his life.
Of course, such characters are all in perfect positions to best represent the ravages of the AIDS epidemic as witnesses from a number of perspectives – not forgetting Manu’s sister Julie (Julie Depardieu), who takes the general public view as an innocent, uncomprehending bystander. This is typical of the perfection of Téchiné’s rigorous formal narrative structure, but there is much more to each of the characters than just being calculated "types", and The Witnesses is much more than a film about AIDS. The focus of the film is almost entirely on the relationships, and here there is genuine warmth in the characterisation that you don’t often find in a Téchiné film. In the early part of the story, it’s captured in the warm colouration of the summer of love, in the music and the dancing, and in the latter part by the terrible events that put their relationship to the test and call for some serious soul-searching. The intensity of living and loving of the early part of the film, gives way to jealousy, mistrust, fear and suspicion which slowly breaks down marriages, friendships and partnerships. The fact that this mirrors the impact of the epidemic is not unintentional, but it is strong and realistic characterisation regardless of the catalyst.
Significantly, there is also a third section. It’s not enough to polarise the film between life and death, there is also an "afterlife" - that necessary distance that gives each of the characters time for reflection, time to learn from their mistakes and better appreciate their lives. Most notably, this is evident in Sarah, the reluctant mother who comes to accept her responsibility towards her child and finds a purpose for herself in her writing of the events. The lessons learnt don’t just serve as the familiar third act note of redemption, but provide context and balance to what has come before. Taking this sober and unflinchingly honest stance, the film manages consequently to be truly heartbreaking without stooping to unnecessary sentiment or preachy moralising – qualities for which Téchiné is well-known, though they have never been more purposefully employed than they are here in The Witnesses.
The Witnesses (Les Témoins) is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
Anamorphic and at a ratio of 1.85:1, the progressive transfer looks marvellous. It certainly looks over-saturated in the early part of the film, but with a colour scheme of yellows, reds and oranges this is clearly intentional to depict the emotional warmth and intensity of the summer of 84. Later sequences in the film show much more realistic colour tones and here the clarity, sharpness and accuracy of the films colours and tones can be more easily recognised as being very fine indeed. There are some compression artefacts, some harsh sharpening of edges and a little bit of troublesome grain, but generally, the quality of the video elements is superb.
The film comes with a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. The 5.1 mix is very centre-based with the music score and sound effects spreading out across the front stereo channels. There is not a great deal of use made of the rear speakers, even for ambience. It's a little bit harsh and can be rather loud and echoing when there is a lot of activity. The 2.0 mix has good strong stereo separation, but has similar issues with reverb on the dialogue. Most evident with indoor scenes, this is doubtless a characteristic of the original sound recording. In the main, the sound is strong, relatively clear and dialogue audible.
English subtitles are optional and presented in a clear, white font.
Téchiné doesn’t do extra features, so there is no place here for a Commentary, Director Interview, Making Of or Deleted Scenes here. There doesn’t seem to have been an effort made to obtains interviews with any of the cast either, so all we have is an anamorphically enhanced Feature Trailer (1:51) which focuses rightly on the film as a relationship drama rather than an AIDS drama, and Filmographies for André Téchiné, Michel Blanc and Emmanuelle Béart.
At first glance, there would seem to be little new in the subject matter of the latest film by André Téchiné, or any variation in the director’s customary solid handling of characters and situations. While it is hardly appropriate to speak of a maturing of the veteran director, there is however something more direct, personal and warmly humane in his treatment of the difficult and emotive subject in The Witnesses. Handled with customary sobriety by the director, the resulting film is consequently is the most powerful of his career to date.