Veteran French director Téchiné stages a rambling but often affecting account of the early days of the AIDS epidemic as filtered through a small group of friends and lovers. As befits its title, The Witnesses is not about the people at the forefront of AIDS research or among the first cases ever diagnosed; rather it’s about the footnotes, those on the side of history who nevertheless were swept up in it. Primarily it’s about a love quadrangle of sorts, centered on husband and wife Mehdi (Bouajila) and Sarah (Béart), who’ve just celebrated the birth of their first child. Or, at least Mehdi has celebrated; Sarah, an author of children’s books, has discovered that she doesn’t much care for actual children.
Into this somewhat volatile mix comes Manu (Libereau), a young country boy finding his way in Paris. Sarah’s middle-aged doctor friend Adrien (Blanc) is smitten with Manu, but Manu sets his sights on Mehdi, and the two begin a furtive affair, while Adrien pines from the sidelines. All these romantic entanglements are handled rather casually, and Téchiné contrasts the liberated sexual attitudes of his protagonists (Mehdi and Sarah have an open marriage; both Manu and Adrien regularly cruise for sex) with the harsh reality of disease that they are about to face in 1984.
But he doesn’t really contrast it too strongly; everything about the movie, even as Manu slowly dies of AIDS and Mehdi and Sarah go through a separation, is quiet and low-key, such that it’s hard to tell where the drama really lies. It’s not quite a movie about sexual hypocrisy, although Mehdi, a vice cop, does regularly bust prostitutes while engaging in his own illicit sexual escapades. And it’s not quite about race, either, even though Mehdi and Manu share an immigrant heritage that informs some of their actions. The shifting focus makes it hard to grab onto one character, although Béart’s narration and strong performance make a convincing case for Sarah as the film’s anchor. She and her companions rarely do or say anything profound, but by the end of the film you’ve come to care about and identify with them at least a little bit, which is probably worth more than yet another lesson about the costs and consequences of AIDS.
Emmanuelle Béart, Sami Bouajila, Johan Libereau, Michel Blanc
Directed by André Téchiné