Culture  La condition humaine: moving beyond the science of AIDS in The Witnesses

AIDS is “a very human virus, a very human epidemic,” said one doctor in a 2006 PBS documentary on the disease, “It touches right to the heart of our existence.” It’s no surprise, then, that André Téchiné, who has attempted to capture the contradictions of the human condition throughout four decades of filmmaking, chose AIDS as the narrative epicentre of his new period film The Witnesses.

It’s 1984, and the hydra is just beginning to raise its head. Sarah, a children’s book author from a wealthy family, and Mehdi, a police officer, are in an open marriage and have just had their first child. Sarah believes she’s “not made for motherhood,” and has been suffering from writer’s block since her son’s birth. Adrien, a middle-aged gay doctor, meets the young, delicate Manu at a Paris pick-up spot; they begin a platonic relationship, though Adrien longs for more. The four friends vacation at Sarah’s beach house in Southern France, and Mehdi and Manu soon can’t keep their hands off each other. But the love quadrangle’s “happy days” – the title of the first part of the film – are shattered when Manu exhibits the first symptoms of AIDS. As he struggles with the onslaught of the disease, his three friends witness his slow decline, trapped between survivor’s guilt and joy for having escaped the virus.

Téchiné – the intellectual progeny of France’s New Wave masters, with whom he rubbed elbows when he worked for the Cahiers du Cinema as a film critic in the sixties – may be categorically averse to autobiographical readings of his oeuvre. But there’s no denying that he is the ultimate witness in the film: he watched dozens of friends die of AIDS in the eighties, back when it was still dubbed “the gay virus.”

That’s the thing with AIDS: it was never just a medical question. HIV may be invisible to the naked eye, but it has always been a signifier for the taboos it brings to light, from homosexuality to drug use, promiscuity to death. As such, a clinical understanding of AIDS will always fall short; the artist is as necessary as the scientist to fully grasp the nature of the disease.

Téchiné knows this. The Witnesses occasionally depicts Adrien at medical conferences pointing to slides of the virus, but it mostly leaves the science of AIDS out of the picture. Instead, it explores the disease in terms of its symbolic and mythical significance – as the Freudian return of the repressed, as sexual “perversion,” as the fear of death, as the end of innocence.

In The Witnesses, AIDS becomes a plot device to retell the story of the Fall. The panoramic opening scenes of Adrien and Manu traipsing around Paris on the Bateaux Mouches, of the four protagonists picnicking beneath the warm Mediterranean sun, are decisively prelapsarian. It’s summer; everything glitters; it’s beautiful to be young and guiltlessly act on one’s sexual desires. But the sun sets on the Golden Age when red blotches appear on Manu’s once-flawless torso. One of the most jarring scenes in the film occurs when Mehdi surprises Manu at home, sitting naked on the toilet. He grabs a towel and rushes to try to push Mehdi – who Manu has refused to see since his diagnosis – out. Mehdi, shocked at the changed appearance of his lover, watches Manu throw himself face down, naked on the bed. “Do you still want me now?” Manu shouts over and over.

Les Rita Mitsouko’s eighties hit “Marcia Baila” provided the refrain in Téchiné’s Eden. But the pop rock fades and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro takes over as Manu declines. When he dies, the camera hones in on Manu’s sister, an opera singer, mournfully delivering her vibrato on stage in a flowing white nightgown.

It’s not the only eerie scene in the film. Despite the staunch realism of the plot, Téchiné said he was aiming for a science-fiction aesthetic to draw a parallel between AIDS and an alien invader. But Téchiné’s reading of his own work is misplaced. In The Witnesses, the climate is unmistakably gothic, and AIDS has all the markings of a Victorian monster – one that represents a society’s hidden fears. When Manu is covered in sores and warts, he tellingly states that he “will only go out at night, just like a vampire.” Yet The Witnesses suggests that society is the greater beast, making monsters out of its exiles in order to demonize the repressed realities they bring to the surface.

But it seems that the ultimate monster, to Téchiné, is the artist. Manu’s death is cathartic for Sarah, who supplies voice-over narration throughout the film: his and Mehdi’s story provides the material for her next novel. It’s a thinly-veiled reflection on Téchiné’s own artistic process, which required a sacrificial lamb to enable his own creative act. And yet, Téchiné justifies himself through Sarah’s words. When Mehdi asks her if she is writing the story of his affair to exact revenge, she replies, “No, I’m doing this to witness.” It’s a morally ambiguous riposte, yet The Witnesses does make one thing clear: the story of AIDS is far from getting old.

The Witnesses is currently playing at Ex-Centris (3536 St. Laurent).