The Witnesses



BERLIN -- Andre Techine's "The Witnesses" may represent a second wave of films about AIDS, where filmmakers can now take a longer view of the early days of the health crisis and how people responded. The first films, from "Longtime Companion" to "It's My Party," immersed viewers in gay culture, the panic and finally acceptance and grief. "The Witnesses" searches for context. The epidemic happened at a time and in places where sexual freedom seemed to offer new ways to explore friendships, boundaries and love. But it also brought a horrible new disease that brought shame, ostracized people from their communities and triggered media hysteria.

The intelligent and compelling dramaturgy in the screenplay by Techine, Laurent Guyot and Viviane Zingg involves us with unlikely people from several walks of life, all of them to become early witnesses to the new plague. Ever the entertainer, Techine situates his story in colorful worlds -- that of opera, policing and medical science, in private aviation, literature and cuisine. He also has a strong cast in French cinema veterans Michel Blanc, Emmanuelle Beart, Sami Bouajila and Julie Depardieu. So the film could have a solid career in European cinemas and gain North American exposure. The key thing is not to bill this as an AIDS movie, for its real theme is of love and acceptance.

In 1984, a young man, Manu (Johan Libereau), who wants to be a chef, arrives in Paris with his sister, Julie (Depardieu), who is studying opera. They live in a sleazy hotel that is essentially a brothel.

While cruising one night, Manu picks up a doctor named Adrien (Blanc). Adrien becomes a close friend and mentor but, curiously, does not consummate the relationship, despite his growing obsession with the beautiful youth.

At a lakeside vacation home, Adrien introduces Manu to his friends Sarah (Beart) and Mehdi (Bouajila), a couple who have had their first child. Sarah, a wealthy woman who writes successful children's books, discovers she doesn't much care for children. Mehdi dotes on his infant but is consumed with his job as a police detective.

Mehdi, who has an open relationship with his wife, start an affair with Manu that begins when he saves Manu from drowning. Mehdi takes the boy up in his private plane -- their excuse for getting together -- and over time the two fall in love.

Then Manu comes down with a mysterious illness. Adrien thinks he knows what it may be. Although heartbroken over Manu's betrayal of him with Mehdi, he begins to treat the youth, turning almost overnight into a crusader against the official ignorance and disavowal of AIDS.

Techine's film, with its lively, involving, idiosyncratic characters, serves to calculate what has been lost in the epidemic: a more carefree sexuality and greater transparency in relationships. Manu feels shame and hides from everyone, even rejecting his lover's concerns. Everyone reacts differently to his impending demise, from panic and getting blood tests to questioning basic assumptions about life. Reassessment of what is important in their individual lives becomes paramount.

This is actually an optimistic movie, even with its downbeat ending. Life carries on, spring comes once again and people struggle to find answers and hope. The characters' bonds may in fact be strengthened by the ordeal, though Techine isn't willing to go all mushy on that point. It's enough that they gather for the child's birthday party.

Tech credits are first-rate, from Julien Hirsch's luminous cinematography, the lively pace of Martine Giordano's editing and Philippe Sarde's subtle, pleasing score.

UGC presents a SBS Films production in co-production with France 2 Cinema with the participation of Canal + and TPS Star
Director: Andre Techine
Screenwriters: Andre Techine, Laurent Guyot, Viviane Zingg
Based on an idea by: Michel Canesi, Jamil Rahmani
Producer: Said Ben Said
Director of photography: Julien Hirsch
Production designer: Michele Abbe
Music: Philippe Sarde
Costume designer: Khadija Zeggai
Editor: Martine Giordano
Adrien: Michel Blanc
Sarah: Emmanuelle Beart
Mehdi: Sami Bouajila
Julie: Julie Depardieu
Manu: Johan Libereau
Sandra: Constance Dolle
Running time -- 112 minutes
No MPAA rating