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May 23, 2008
Angels in Europe
The early days of the epidemic, seen from another perspective
When the year 1984 gets a mention, visions of Orwellian dystopias or the Reagan-Thatcher nightmare often come to mind.
For many in the LGBT community, it evokes memories of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when fear and suspicion were the order of the day, when undertakers refused to touch bodies and paramedics feared to give CPR.
One seldom thinks of what the situation was like during the dawn of the epidemic in other Western nations, like France. The United States was the epicenter of the identified plague; how did our allies across the ocean react to their early outbreaks?
In a very personal way, that story is told in André Téchiné’s latest film The Witnesses, which will show at the Cleveland Institute of Art’s Cinematheque on Friday and Saturday, May 30 and 31.
The film revolves around four people: Manu (Johan Libéreau), who just moved to Paris from his rural home in the Pyrenees, children’s book author Sarah (Emmanuelle Beart) who is trying to write an adult novel but hitting a wall, her husband Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), a vice cop, and their friend Adrien (Michel Blanc), a gay doctor at the forefront of AIDS organizing in the country.
Manu is living with his sister Julie (Julie Depardieu), an aspiring opera singer who rents a room in a seedy hotel in the red-light district. He’s young, he’s gay, and he likes to cruise the parks, as almost every gay man in Paris seemed to do at the time.
He runs into Adrien there, who is significantly older than he. They develop a friendship, although it’s obvious the doctor would like it to be more.
Content merely to orbit such a brightly-shining star, however, he introduces Manu to Sarah and Mehdi, and the quartet begin to hang out together.
The dynamics change, however, when Mehdi saves Manu from drowning in a lake, and the younger man starts falling in love with the cop. His love burns, and Mehdi is singed when his young paramour develops symptoms of AIDS.
As Manu’s health deteriorates and Mehdi begins to keep his distance from Sarah, Adrien becomes ever more involved in the nascent AIDS community, helping to organize a national network of doctors and other service providers to beat back the coming storm. He also becomes Manu’s caregiver, holding him under his wing while never being able to embrace him in the way he desires.
Since it’s 1984 and Manu is already symptomatic, things cannot end well for him, but he dictates his life story onto tape for Sarah to turn into a novel. He figures that is the best way for his life to be remembered, to leave something of himself behind.
The film is worthy of Téchiné’s career, which now spans over 30 years. It is filled with Gallic passion, and there are more arguments in its 112 minutes than in an entire season of Dynasty. Thankfully, no slapping or aging divas falling into fountains in the midst of a catfight, but the claws do rend emotional flesh as allegiances change and the blood is enflamed.
There is not a single off note in the entire cast of seasoned professionals. Emmanuelle Beart is a familiar face on the international screen, and has been in so many American and British films that she is instantly recognizable.
Blanc has also been in a steady stream of movies on both sides of the Atlantic, and his performance evokes the universal feelings of rejection felt by those whose love is not reciprocated.
It is on young Libéreau’s shoulders, however, that so much of the film rests, and his mercurial vacillations between mature adulthood and flighty teenager so epitomize the character’s age. Watching him go through the realization of his impending death is a remarkable experience, and one that probably would never be done as well in an American film.
Téchiné said that he made the film because there haven’t been that many about AIDS done in France. The nation doesn’t have a genre of “early days of AIDS” films like it does with Vietnam, and he wanted to look back on that time with a modern eye.
“I have a sense of having escaped my destiny and that’s what gave me the urge to make this movie. Otherwise, it would have been a slightly abstract historical ambition,” he said in the press notes for the film.
The Witnesses plays at 7 pm on Friday and 5:15 pm on Saturday at the Cinematheque, 11141 East Boulevard in the University Circle area of Cleveland. Tickets are $8, $6 for Cinematheque members and Cleveland Institute of Arts students and staff. For more information, go to www.cia.edu/cinematheque.
The film is being distributed in the United States by Strand Releasing and the DVD will be out on June 24. Check www.strandreleasing.com for The Witnesses and other incredible queer films.