Les Témoins (2007) is André Téchiné at his most politically powerful. The film addresses the systematic homophobia that swept France in the wake of the AIDs outbreak of 1984. Téchiné takes a humanist approach, grounding his political commentaries in the narrative background. As with all of Téchiné’s best films it is the characters who are front and center in Les Témoins.
Les Témoins is Téchiné’s spiritual sequel to Les Roseaux sauvages (1994) in so far as both films deal with queer characters against the backdrop of a major historical event (first the Algerian War and then AIDs). Within the narrative structure of both films there are characters who suppress their sexuality under the pressure of societal norms. This internal conflict unites the queer characters while the major political events in the background function as a means of uniting the smaller insular communities that the characters have formed.
But what’s really powerful in Les Témoins is how these different groupings interact when compelled to unite their social spheres. The character of Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart), whose husband Mehdi (Sami Boujila) is having an affair with Manu (Johan Libéreau), spends much of the film contemplating her own homophobia whilst trying to accept Mehdi and simultaneously grappling with the effects that AIDs is having on France as a whole. Sarah is the mirror pointed back on a culture that for too long has participated in the systemic persecution of homosexuals. Her counterpart is Adrien (Michel Blanc), an older gay man, who is the moral center of the film that balances the more intellectual Sarah. These two characters form a kind of bridge between the queer and heteronormative worlds for the audience. The viewer’s emotions may be tied to Mehdi and Manu, but it is Adrien and Sarah that remind us of our culpability in the failure of that romance and others of its kind.
For in the end the point that André Téchiné is making is that it took a catastrophic event like AIDs to stir our collective society awake. Reactions to AIDs in the eighties were extreme for both the political left and right, and Les Témoins reminds us that we cannot wait for such disastrous events to reassess the culture that we live in and implement changes for the better.