I wrote down the wrong time for yesterday's press screening and arrived 45 minutes late instead of 15 minutes early, missing Agnès Jaoui's Let It Rain. (Released in France, and at the New York Film Festival, in 2008, it's just now coming to commercial theaters in the U.S., opening on June 18 in NYC before expanding to other locations throughout the summer.) I'd been looking forward to that screening, since I usually like Jaoui's movies very much, but hey, the whole point of this movie-a-day exercise is that there's always a good movie to be seen somewhere. So I shook off my annoyance with myself, came home, checked the streaming videos in my Netflix queue for something I'd missed when it was in theaters, and wound up watching The Witnesses.
Like Jaoui, writer-director André Téchiné creates drama by honing in on the interactions of a tight group of friends, relatives, and/or lovers. Téchiné often uses those characters to explore some battle that's being fought in the larger world as well. In his latest movie, The Girl on the Train, the battleground was anti-Semitism in contemporary Paris. In The Witnesses, it's AIDS in 1984 and 1985, when Parisians were just becoming aware of the disease and starting to fight for a cure.
The film's divided into three parts. The first introduces us to Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart), a writer, her husband Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), a vice squad cop, and their (mostly Sarah's) good friend Adrien (Michel Blanc), a doctor. We meet this little group as it absorbs a new member, Manu (Johan Libéreau), a very young man with an incandescent smile and a strong sense of self. Manu meets Adrien when they're both cruising at a gay pickup spot in a park. The two don't become lovers, but Adrien falls hard for Manu and they become inseparable friends. Sarah and Mehdi initially see him just as Adrien's latest boy toy, but that changes when Mehdi—to his own great surprise—falls in love with Manu too and they start a passionate affair.
None of these four beautifully acted characters is idealized. Manu's sister, who is also his roommate, teases him about being a narcissist. Sarah guards the quiet she needs to work so jealously that she neglects her newborn baby. Adrien is overly cautious and possessive, and Mehdi is hated and feared by the prostitutes he polices, including a friend of Manu's. They all clash with each other at times, even coming to awkward blows. These flaws make it easier to believe in and care about these prickly people, who are so intimately connected they can switch in an instant from tenderness to anger.
That part of the story is engaging, but it wouldn't add up to much more than a high-class soap opera if it weren't for part two, when everything that came before takes on a new poignancy and weight. It starts when Adrien realizes that Manu has AIDS. The loving sorrow in Adrien's eyes suffuses this part of the film, but it's only one of a complex web of reactions.
Mehdi is desperate to find Manu, who doesn't want his lover to see him this way. He is also so wracked with shame over having exposed his wife to the virus that he can't face her, so he moves out while he awaits the results of his blood test. Sarah, a "spoiled brat" who has been used to getting her way, lies alone in the dark, her baby-like features clouded by depression. Manu handles his rapid demise with his usual grace and self-confidence, which makes his death all the sadder. But rather than milk our tears, the filmmakers do something more resonant, seeing him out with one last visit to the pickup spot he used to love in the park. Manu is nearly blinded by the disease by then, so when the camera briefly adopts his point of view, we see attenuated black figures against a blindingly light background. It's a strangely beautiful, and therefore comforting, intimation of his death.
Infused with tenderness, fury, and quiet grief, The Witnesses starts as the story of an insular group and winds up a moving memorial to everyone we've lost to AIDS. It's also a tribute to the beauty of the life they let go of.
A couple of impromptu dances in the first part of the movie—one by Manu's prostitute friend at a bar, the other on the patio of Sarah's mother's beautiful beach house, where Sarah, Adrien, and Manu dance as the two men arrive for an idyllic weekend—channel the joy of pure, unfiltered chi. But the real meaning of life, The Witnesses implies, is found in the relationships we forge with the people we love most. "It's a miracle, being alive," Sarah's mother tells her, after describing how close Sarah came to dying as an infant. "You taught me that."
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.