The Witnesses (Strand Releasing, NR)

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Though unlike Téchiné’s laboring WWII drama Strayed (also with Béart), The Witnesses succeeds on its urgency, cleverly depicting a dark era of recent history with vigor and a surprising velocity.

The Witnesses begins with the foundation of melodrama. In the summer of 1984, gay doctor Adrien (Michel Blanc, Monsieur Hire) falls for naïve twentysomething Manu (Johan Libéreau, Cold Showers) who isn’t interested in him physically. After Adrien introduces the Manu to his friends, Manu launches into a sexual relationship with married, nominally heterosexual Medhi (Sami Bouajila, The Adventures of Félix), husband of emotionally tormented writer Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart). The secret affair moves rapidly, only to be irrevocably altered when Manu starts to show signs of a new illness we’d later know as AIDS. Though a three-act narration from Sarah, director André Téchiné (Wild Reeds, Rendez-vous) depicts the early days of AIDS like an epic war romance, even titling his second act, “La guerre.” Though unlike Téchiné’s laboring WWII drama Strayed (also with Béart), The Witnesses succeeds on its urgency, cleverly depicting a dark era of recent history with vigor and a surprising velocity.

As was the case in both Wild Reeds and Strayed, the central catalyst for the occurrences in The Witnesses is a pretty young boy, played rather heartbreakingly by newcomer Libéreau. It’s around his Manu that The Witnesses takes shape. Manu serves also as the martyr for the sins of both the film’s characters as well as the not-so-distant past. And yet The Witnesses is never soapy, despite its salacious love trapezoid. It’s too sunny, to swiftly paced for tedious histrionics. Instead, the film works merely through Manu to depict the sweeping emotions of the peripheral individuals.

As usual, Blanc, as the aging, bitter doctor who becomes overwhelmed by the growing cases of AIDS, is exceptional, as is Bouajila. Béart, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired. Her Sarah is refreshingly bold in her disinterest for taking on the role of a mother, but Béart lacks conviction, both in her apathetic responses to the world around her and as a credible author. This isn’t even to mention how out-of-place her collagen-injected lips look for 1984 Paris. Béart aside, Téchiné constructed a moving, relevant film with The Witnesses, even if it falls short of the ultimate devastation of Wild Reeds or exquisite ambition of Rendez-vous. | Joe Bowman

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