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The games that the free-loving characters play in French writer-director André Téchiné’s The Witnesses are no less deadly but much easier to sympathize with. Considering its time period and subject matter, however—1984 and the AIDS epidemic’s blindsiding of gay communities worldwide—the story can feel awfully light and ultimately forgettable. The film’s consistently gorgeous blue-sky-and-green-sea setting in the south of France is one factor, as it distractedly envelops the drama in sunshine. Yet to their credit, Téchiné and his two co-scripters gambled that they didn’t have to marinate their plot in bathos in order to engage an audience for a couple of hours.
The story intertwines two sets of families and friends: First we meet Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart), a wealthy writer, her vice-squad husband, Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), and her doctor friend, Adrien (Michel Blanc). Then there’s Julie (Julie Depardieu, Gérard’s daughter), an aspiring opera singer, and her younger gay brother, Manu (Johan Libéreau), who temporarily moves into her room in a prostitute-friendly hotel. Manu meets Adrien while cruising a Parisian park and becomes a kept boy, if not exactly Adrien’s lover; meanwhile, a picnic at Sarah’s family beach house leads to a developing flirtation between Manu and Mehdi. Though Sarah and Mehdi have an open marriage—she says that she “loves him too much” to be faithful—she thinks he’s a “womanizer” and doesn’t know he’s bisexual. Sarah is a new mom, and the affairs aren’t as damaging to her relationship with Mehdi as the child; Sarah declares herself not cut out for parenting, all but ignoring the baby while Mehdi takes care of him.
Manu is the fulcrum of The Witnesses, happily chased by two men and oblivious to the sores on his body until Adrien recognizes the symptoms of the disease that was then still “shrouded in mystery.” His illness prompts everyone who knows him, particularly those with sexual ties, to reevaluate their lives, but as sad as the young man’s sudden death sentence may be, the character is never as emotionally resonant as the others’ plights: Mehdi grapples with not just his closet homosexuality but the hypocrisy of his raiding gay hangouts; Adrien is both stunned by the epidemic and fearful of aging into a lonely queen.
But the women are the most compelling. Julie happily shuns a social life to devote herself to singing, and Sarah’s disappointment about motherhood is a subject rarely broached outside movie-of-the-week pulp. The explosion of AIDS is the film’s sobering heart, but the manner in which it affects those who witness it makes the story universal and, through each person’s small, life-affirming reactions, hopeful.