Combustible Celluloid
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With: Emmanuelle Béart, Michel Blanc, Sami Bouajila, Julie Depardieu, Johan Libereau, Constance Dollé, Lorenzo Balducci, Alain Cauchi, Raphaëline Goupilleau, Jacques Nolot, Xavier Beauvois, Maïa Simon
Written by: André Téchiné, Laurent Guyot, Viviane Zingg
Directed by: André Téchiné
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 112
Date: 02/12/2007

The Witnesses (2008)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Generous Hospital

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

André Téchiné's The Witnesses goes in as many different directions as its maker's filmography (Scene of the Crime, Strayed, Changing Times, etc.). It begins as a Rohmer-like comedy of errors, albeit a stiff and half-baked one, starring five characters. Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart, gorgeous, even with a ridiculous haircut) is a writer of children's books, and a new mom who ironically finds that she doesn't like motherhood. Her husband, Mehdi (Sami Bouajila) is a cop who likes flying planes in his off hours. Sarah's best friend is Adrien (the extraordinary Michel Blanc), a gay, middle-aged doctor who goes cruising in the parks for sex. He picks up Manu (Johan Libereau), and lets the young, carefree fellow stay with him, although Manu isn't interested in sex with his benefactor. Manu's sister is Julie (Julie Depardieu), a rising opera star who lives in a sleazy hotel mainly populated by hookers.

Unfortunately, the film's first hour is all too predictable, especially given a scene in which Sarah and Mehdi happen to reveal that they have an open marriage: Manu is going to seduce Mehdi. It happens very obviously when the two men go swimming during a holiday weekend and cop Mehdi rescues helpless, nearly-drowned Manu with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. They begin a secret relationship, meeting for "plane rides," which usually turn into fumbling in the bushes or in car seats. Adrien gets jealous; he and Manu argue, but at the crux of the fight the doctor notices sores on Manu's chest. Thus begins Act II: the AIDS era, circa 1984. Téchiné handles this section slightly better than the standard disease-of-the-week film. He moves quickly over the information, stating it matter-of-factly. Adrien, as a doctor, delves into research, driven by his love for Manu, and most of the information comes from him, rather than from scenes of sickbeds and suffering. Perhaps the film's biggest problem is the relative newcomer Johan Libereau as Manu; we've seen this character and this portrayal before, and he's a little too pat, a little too well defined.

The film's biggest surprise comes in the final half-hour. Manu is gone, and we spend a little time with the remaining four characters as they get on with their lives. The typical AIDS drama would end with the death or perhaps the funeral, leaving the audience in tears. This movie is more concerned with ideas of life and hope. Once we realize that this has been Téchiné's theme all along then all the mood changes and banalities begin to come into focus. We realize that the widescreen cinematography has emphasized sunlight and outdoors rather than sterile, soulless hospital rooms. In the end, it's the idea of Manu that matters more than the actual Manu, which is how The Witnesses finally works.

( See also my longer review at

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