A moral tale that isn’t saddled with moralism, The Witnesses is a novelistic film in the best sense; its quintet of friends and lovers have a depth and unpredictability that preclude the viewer from judging them from sequence to sequence. Making a clear-eyed, smart melodrama set at the dawn of AIDS, co-writer and director André Téchiné has matched the humanist power of his mid-‘90s run of My Favorite Season, Wild Reeds, and Thieves, bolstering his credentials as perhaps France’s leading filmmaker. “You can ask anything of your friends,” one of Téchiné‘s witnesses insists in an early scene, and through the pain of betrayal, accusation, and grief, they do—the price of redemption or forgiveness is high but not unimaginable.
Arriving in Paris in the summer of 1984, jobless young caterer Manu (a persuasively guileless and magnetic Johan Libereau) moves in with his aspiring opera-singer sister (Julie Depardieu) and, in contrast to her ascetic studiousness, frequents a park for gay cruising, where he begins a platonic courtship with middle-aged doctor Adrien (Michel Blanc). The older man clearly wants more, proclaiming Manu to be “a gift woven by Eros,” but settles for companionship on the newcomer’s terms, taking him to the seaside home of Sarah (Emanuelle Beart), author of children’s books and a harried new mother, and her prickly vice-cop mate Mehdi (Sami Bouajila). The long-standing openness of the couple’s relationship seems to be no factor in the domestic anxieties wrought by parenthood. After insinuating himself into Manu’s life by warning him not to hang out in an oft-raided hustler bar, Mehdi saves the youth from drowning one weekend, and the pair soon tumble into a furtive but obsessive affair, trysting after weekly plane joyrides piloted by Mehdi.
The lasting, mortal repercussions from these colliding desires are charted in the second half of the film, and the fluid, interpersonal emphasis of the screenplay never puts the narrative in danger of declining into sentimental formula. (A gun that appears not only remains unfired, it’s quickly disposed of. Only one of the five principals is seen weeping, and as it’s Mehdi, the one with the most to hide, he does it alone, once.) As the lonely physician who becomes caregiver to his fallen beloved, Blanc is utterly convincing both in moments of petty rage—“Your wine is revolting, and so are you” he spits at Manu—and in embarking on a professional zealot’s mission against the explosion of AIDS. Beart doesn’t soften the chillier aspects of Sarah, who writes while plugging her ears against the cries of her baby and attempts an adult novel about a mother who mythologically abandons her infant on a beach. As likely the least sympathetic of these Parisians in crisis, Bouajila makes Mehdi’s hardened detective’s shell, his nearly wordless seduction of Manu, and his shame and anger in multiple confrontation scenes all of a piece. As is normal in Téchiné‘s cosmopolitan tapestries, Mehdi’s Arab ethnicity is not discussed save for a desperate thrust in an argument: “A liar, a predator—typical of my kind!”
When Sarah receives a kiss from a dying friend and is revivified to chronicle his lost, short life in her new novel, there are echoes of Atonement but the execution is far less clunky than in that self-consciously “literary” meta film. Téchiné‘s four survivors address their loss and attempt to redress the world through their art or profession: opera, writing, medicine, even the dubious law-enforcement priorities that target brothels and gay bars. Boating on another summer’s sea, they’ve learned the value of living from eluding, fighting, and respecting death.