With its three acts, ever-shifting relationships, a minor character who earns a living as a soprano and significant moments spent at the theatre, André Téchiné hints at an operatic approach in his ensemble drama set in mid-’80s Paris, yet the French director handles a tragic story without ever touching on hysteria, melodrama or sentimentality. We follow a cycle from summer to winter and summer again as Téchiné swiftly examines a turbulent year in the lives of three unlikely friends and an outsider who joins their close-knit group at the time that AIDS is emerging. There are striking and well-explored conflicts of class, sexuality and race, yet Téchiné’s characters are neither models of disharmony nor paragons of friendship; they are a believable and likeable group of friends struggling to handle the entry of a disease into their easy lives.
No character invites more or less sympathy than the other. Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart) is a new mother and writer of children’s books who’s married to Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), a harried cop from a less privileged background. He appears, at least on the surface, more sensible than his wife, who’s finding motherhood a trial. Trouble brews when Sarah invites her friend, Adrien (Michel Blanc), a fiftysomething, well-heeled doctor, to spend the weekend at her mother’s house on the coast, and he brings with him Manu (Johan Libéreau), a young lad from the Ariège who he met when cruising in the city. Relationships slip and slide, illness emerges and we are presented with a credible, pacy and moving snapshot of sexuality in the mid-’80s.
‘The Witnesses’ is a film about disease and death, but neither appear extraordinary here – instead Téchiné’s story is all too realistic. Nor is Téchiné much interested in the mechanics of dying and grieving; it’s the relationships that matter the most, and the characters never feel as if they’re occupying a treatise on the period. The occasional voiceover from Béart and a slightly mournful score from Philippe Sarde offer some sense of lament, but mostly this unfolds in the moment and is urgent and engaging.