Knight at the Movies Archives
Téchiné's character drama is set at the outset of the AIDS crisis in France, William E. Jones' "found document" is mesmerizing
Openly gay French writer-director André Téchiné, probably best known to GLBT film audiences for 1994’s The Wild Reeds, returns with
The Witnesses, a beautifully nuanced character drama set in Paris at the outset of the AIDS epidemic.
The comely Manu (Johan Libéreau) has just arrived in Paris in the summer of 1984 and moves in with his sister Julie (Julie
Depardieu), an aspiring opera singer into a rundown hotel. The hotel, in reality nothing much more than a brothel, is run by an
older man (Jacques Nolot, writer-director-star of the terrific gay themed Before I Forget) who plays chess with Manu on occasion (and
gives him the once over one suspects). Sandra (Constance Dollé), a lively prostitute in Madonna drag, is another resident who also
hangs out with Manu at the new wave club across from the hotel (there she lip syncs a lively version of “Marcia Baïla” by Les Rita
But these are but brief distractions for Manu (and the audience) who is more interested in cruising. Young but hardly innocent, Manu
is the quintessential boy toy, an object of desire for the other male characters in the film. Out cruising one night he meets the much
older Adrien (Michel Blanc), a doctor who falls head over heels for the young hunk but Manu, who is aware of his attractiveness,
prefers a platonic friendship. Like many older gay men infatuated and hopeful, Adrien agrees to Manu’s conditions, hoping with
time, perhaps that things will progress.
Adrien takes Manu for a weekend jaunt to a country home owned by friends Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart) and her husband Mehdi
(Sami Bouajila). Sarah is a wealthy writer of children’s books who resents the distraction of her new baby with Mehdi (who loves the
baby and fusses over it). This bourgeois young couple is open about their affairs (Sarah insists in fact that it’s one of the
strongholds of their relationship) but both are surprised when Mehdi, who works as a vice cop, finds himself drawn to Manu after
saving him from almost drowning. It’s not quite clear but seems like this may be a first gay affair for Mehdi. Sarah, who wants to
move away from children’s literature, uses the affair as the basis for her first adult novel and narrates much of the film as it unfolds.
As the affair increases in intensity so does the jealousy of Adrien who tells Manu, “You hold all the cards. Everyone wants you.” But
Adrien’s jealously changes to concern when Manu learns that he’s contracted AIDS. From that point the complex emotions of the key
players swirling about Manu will shift as they learn of his diagnosis and as the virus, nearly unstoppable in those early years, invades
their previously carefree lives. The device allows Téchiné’s characters to display an array of reactions – fear, regret, anger – to the
news of Manu’s illness and unlike many of its American counterparts, Téchiné’s characters are decidedly unsentimental when faced
with the sobering news.
Téchiné shoots his film in mustard yellow and Mediterranean blue, reflecting the sunny seaside getaway where the affair first begins
but the bright colors become emblems of anxiety and indifference (especially when worn by the ethereal beauty Béart who is swathed
in bright yellow dresses throughout). Bouajila as Mehdi, meanwhile, wears bright red shirts – a literal target for Manu’s affections
Though The Witnesses covers familiar territory in focusing on a protagonist with AIDS, the complex reactions of the characters and
unusual turns in Téchiné’s densely layered script (co-written with Laurent Guyot) provide a welcome addition to a legion of AIDS
related movies and the French perspective, so different from our own, never fails to intrigue.
The Witnesses plays in Chicago exclusively at the Music Box Theatre www.musicboxtheatre.com
Queer outsider filmmaker William E. Jones will be in town to preside over two screenings of his fascinating, disturbing and sexy
Tearoom. The film consists of an assemblage of surveillance footage shot in July and August of 1962 by the Mansfield, Ohio
police department of a men’s room on the public square. Jones has done minimal cutting to the footage – he has removed an
apparent obtrusive voice over and shifted the establishing shots from the end of the film to the beginning and otherwise left it pretty
The 56-minute result, shot in grainy color has the look of a graphic home movie and is enthralling. We see men of all ages and
sizes, black and white, surreptitiously having sex in and around the two stalls in the cramped men’s room, unaware that a
cameraman is shooting them through a two-way mirror. The culmination of the fast cutting between trysts along with the details
focused on by the camera operator becomes as interesting as the footage itself. Naturally, a lot of the faces are the same – men
returning repeatedly to get off – a black teenager is seen in multiple encounters as is an elderly white guy in a striped shirt and crew
cut (he’s like the king cocksucker of the place). Every now and then a phone number is exchanged but there’s no real intimacy and
certainly no kissing. Even the act of anal intercourse which several of the men engage in furtively doesn’t seem intimate and is
engaged in quickly with one eye toward the entrance.
This fascinating artifact of gay culture is mesmerizing (the mind imagines all the different back stories for the different men), sexy
(by way of its illicit nature) and finally, heartbreaking. Given the date of the footage and the reason for its existence Jones doesn’t
even need to point out that it was used to put many of these men in prison.
Tearoom plays in Chicago as part of the White Light Cinema program, a new alternative film series, and screens on Sunday, May 18
at The Nightingale (1084 N. Milwaukee) at 6:30 and 9:30pm. Mansfield 1962, a 9-minute experimental short made from the original
footage by Jones will also be shown. Limited copies of a companion book, “Tearoom” will also be available for sale at the
Expanded Edition of 5-14-08 Windy City Times Knight at the Movies Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.