Les Témoins

February 7, 2010By Tom RidgwayArchive

False Witness

Johan Libereau, Michel Blanc and Emmanuelle Béart party down.

In André Téchiné’s Les Témoins (The Witnesses), it’s 1984 and Manu (Johan Libereau) has just arrived in Paris. He soon meets a doctor, Adrien (Michel Blanc), in a cruising spot and the two begin a platonic affair. Proud of his new friend, Adrien takes Manu to see his friends Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart), a writer, and Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), a cop, in the south of France. It doesn’t take long for Manu’s arrival in the circle of friends to change the relationships between them all.

Like many of Téchiné’s films, Les Témoins is essentially the story of a group disrupted by the arrival of an outsider; the difference this time is that there are two outsiders: Manu and AIDS. The arrival of the disease and the hysteria it provoked back in 1984 is well-integrated into the film; it never feels tacked on or used simply as a dramatic device. Yet Téchiné’s otherwise excellent film has a huge problem, at least for me.

It’s not often that a film is ruined by production design, but Les Témoins is that rare creature. Even though the specific moment in time is key to the story, Téchiné doesn’t bother to convince his audience that they are watching a film set in 1984. Although the characters are dressed up in clothes that look vaguely 1980s (except Mehdi’s jacket, which looks defiantly last year) and drive cars that existed in 1984, that’s where the effort ends. Shot after shot is filled with modern cars and buses (one particularly important shot is ruined by the sight of a Renault from two years ago prominently featured in the background).

My favorite mistake – among many – is a scene in which one of the characters is lying in a hospital bed explaining what it’s like to die from a disease no one really knows anything about. It’s a powerful moment, except I couldn’t focus on what was being said because the words “Hôpitaux de Paris 2006” were stitched clearly across his pillow. To some people
this doesn’t matter (a colleague told me I was being ridiculous to be annoyed by it), but to me it did. It’s hard to concentrate on the story and the struggles and desires of the characters when you are constantly being drawn out of the film’s imaginary world by production design errors.

But are they mistakes? They are made so consistently that after a while I began asking myself whether Téchiné had done it deliberately. (Apparently it was not for lack of budget.) If so, to what end? Is he trying to say that AIDS is not a problem that appeared in 1984 and disappeared? That it remains current, a still-urgent problem that can’t be ignored simply because we now have drugs to control its lethalness (at least in the developed world)? If so, it’s not exactly the subtlest way of making his point, and it turns Les Témoins into a deeply strange film.

In general, this is a fine piece of work – well-acted and intelligently written and directed – but this drawback turns it into a frustrating, annoying and ultimately distancing film. You be the witness…

Tom Ridgway

© 2007 Paris Update

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