Like many of his colleagues, André Téchiné reviewed films for Cahiers du cinema, championing the work of auteur filmmakers the world over, before becoming a director. But unlike his colleagues, he never really became an auteur himself. He has his supporters, and actresses love working with him, but he has yet to define his cinematic personality, or create a real, enduring masterpiece. Just a few months ago, Kino Video (under its Kimstim wing) released an older Téchiné film, Scene of the Crime (1986), starring Catherine Deneuve. I happened to see it just before watching Téchiné's new film, The Witnesses. There was no real stylistic connection between the films; the former played like a Claude Chabrol thriller and the latter was more like an Eric Rohmer character study. But the most notable difference is that Scene of the Crime was made in the 1980s, and The Witnesses is set in the 1980s, but they actually have no visual similarity. Téchiné's new film uses lots of handheld cinematography, whereas Scene of the Crime was far more patient and steady.
It might help to know who Téchiné is before attempting to decipher The Witnesses. The picture goes in as many different directions as its maker's filmography. 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 and new mom who finds that she doesn't like motherhood; ironic, given that she has published several children's books. 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. It also looks as if there might have been a sixth character; Sarah's editor is mentioned more than just in passing, but he is only seen once. (For some reason, French movies, such as Va Savoir and Private Fears in Public Places, prefer the number six.)