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Can I Get a

Can I Get a


Wild Reeds director Andre Techine's new film, The Witnesses, is a reminder of an epidemic that cinema sometimes forgets.

Andre Techine 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, Techine 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 Beart), and her vice cop husband, Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), all of whom come under the spell of a vivacious young drifter named Manu (Johan Libereau).

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, Techine (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? Hotel des Ameriques?

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.

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