Can I Get a Witness?

By David Ehrenstein

Originally published on Advocate.com February 01 2008 1:00 AM ET

André Téchiné has been a name to contend
with in world cinema ever since the mid '70s.
That's when his satirical comedy French
Provincial
and his brooding thriller Barocco made
him a natural heir to France's "New Wave" tradition of
narrative romanticism mixed with stylistic innovation.
He's made a number of striking films since then,
particularly those starring his favorite leading lady,
Catherine Deneuve (Scene of the Crime, My Favorite
Season,
and Thieves are standouts), but he
won the hearts of LGBT moviegoers world wide in 1994
with Wild Reeds -- a coming-of-age and
coming-out story of matchless sensitivity and insight.

With his latest film, The Witnesses,
Téchiné has made his most ambitious work to
date. A drama about the very early days of the AIDS
epidemic, The Witnesses details how the crisis
affected a group of French people: dedicated doctor
Adrien (Michel Blanc), children's book author Sarah
(Emmanuelle Béart), and her vice cop husband, Mehdi
(Sami Bouajila), all of whom come under the spell of a
vivacious young drifter named Manu (Johan
Libéreau).

Adrien, who is gay, falls madly in love with Manu. But Manu
only has eyes for Mehdi -- whose wife isn't at all
jealous. The real snake in this demiparadise is AIDS.
Manu contracts HIV and with it all the infections that
were common in the epidemic's early days. Trying his best to
save him, Adrien must deal not only with his
personal passions but a disease about which there's
little understanding and no cure. Speaking from his
home in Paris, Téchiné (who turns 64 this March)
explained why this story has a very special resonance
for him as both an artist and a gay man.

 

In the press notes provided for the film you're
quoted saying about the epidemic, "I feel I have escaped
my destiny."

Yes, I do. A number of friends very, very close to me
vanished. They were killed by the epidemic. They were
suddenly just gone. I didn't die, and began to get the
impression that I escaped some kind of collective
destiny that our community seemed to have. The film is about
relationships that are very personal and intimate and at the
same time collective. That's what I find interesting
about this subject. It's a generational trauma as well
as a personal trauma.

There have been many films about the epidemic over
the years.

Less than there have been about Vietnam. It's not a war
that's often represented on the screen -- at least not
in France. And it is a war. There are a few films, of
course. But I think it's very important to put this
historical trauma on the screen, and in many different forms
-- dramatic, comedic, even musical. Look at World War
II. There was Chaplin's The Great Dictator, and
later there was Cabaret. But at the same time,
with AIDS, I think it's important to present this as a
form of spectacle, as a drama, and not treat this
history as if it didn't exist. It's the worst possible
thing to forget about of this.

There have been several French films I can think of
that deal with AIDS: the musical Jeanne and
The Perfect Guy, the very sensational
Savage Nights, and another very interesting
film that deals in part with the dying, Les
Passagers.
And then there are films like Those
Who Love Me Can Take the Train
and coming up the
new film Before I Forget by Jacques Nolot
-- who appears as an actor in The
Witnesses
and has been a script collaborator
with you in the past. How is your film different?

Many of the films you've mentioned are great films that I
like a lot. But the collective reaction that I'm
talking about isn't present in those films. I'm
looking to present a new form of solidarity in cinema. In
the conclusion of my film the epidemic results in a
new form of collectivity and solidarity. I like
Angels in America very much because it
shows this too. At the end the characters are not
destroyed by AIDS. That's what interests me about this
illness. My film isn't strictly melancholy or
negative. There's horror, but in the end, I hope, a
sense of humanity remains through dealing with this war.

At the end of the film there's this sense of "life
goes on" too.

Not just that. What's been created is a new collection of
people. For example, Steve (Lorenzo Balducci), the
young American who has come to Paris to meet his
lover's family and meets Adrien by chance. The reality
created by the illness brings them together.

Sarah is also a shocking character in many ways.
She's a mother who rejects the child she's just given
birth to -- rejects motherhood. Many people will
find that hard to take.

She rejects the child because of her career as a writer and
because she doesn't like being a mother. That happens.
It's true.

Sami Bouajila, who plays her husband, was in TheAdventures of Felix -- another film that
dealt with AIDS.

He's very complex and has a lot of strength as an actor. He
was just what I needed for that character.

The other thing the film deals with about
relationships is that sometimes there's love and no
sexuality and sometimes there's sexuality and no love.

Often the most chaste loves are the strongest. Love and sex
are sometimes together but often distinct. All the
characters in the film are different. Sarah embraces
Manu, who has been her husband's lover because she
never judges anyone. That's why it should be difficult to
judge her.

Where is that hotel in Paris?

Actually, it's not in Paris. It's based on a hotel I know of
in Marseilles. I originally wrote those scenes to be
shot in Marseilles, but it was too expensive. So I put
it in Paris in the 18th arrondissement. It's one of
the true autobiographical elements of the film, that hotel,
because I lived in such a hotel for a time

We see gay men cruising in the park, but there
aren't any scenes in the "gay ghetto" -- Le Marais, for example.

No, this isn't a film about back rooms or nightclubs. I
tried to show other places like the park. They exist.
Or at least they existed at that time. I loved the
parks and gardens as meeting places. At night when the
moon was out they were magical. But now in Paris that
doesn't exist anymore.

Ah, c'est triste.

Oui, c'est triste.

And now your future projects?

There's a film I want to shoot this winter about a young
Arab woman in France encountering racism. It's a story
about truth and lies. In a sense it will be kind of a
documentary. She's kind of an artist. She concocts a
lie, but at the same time it reflects something real in
society.

A bit like your other films with a female
protagonist? Barocco? Hôtel des Amériques?

And Rendez-vous, which is made with a very
young Juliette Binoche. There won't be a male lead in this
one. It'll be about a young woman making her way in
the modern world. And that's all I can say about it
right now because that's the way I work.