"Let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone..." -- Madeleine Peyroux,, 'Dance Me To The End Of Love'

Film At the box office buying a ticket for director André Téchiné’s new film I entirely forgot what the title was.
‘One for … I’ve forgotten the title …’ I said as the clerk looked up puzzled, ‘Erm … it’s the French AIDS drama …’ I continued throwing genre in her face.
The Witnesses?’ She said thinly.
‘That’s it.’
Someone wiser than I am has said that French cinema essentially contains two genres – the so-called heritage films (corsets and revolutions) and everything else. Oddly enough that works pretty well, although it has to be said there are still sub-genres within that which despite the best efforts of the film makers still manage to fit in with pre-existing Hollywood genres one of which on the basis of And The Band Played On, Philadelphia, Angels in America and RENT is the AIDS drama.

AIDS dramas tend to be set in the early to mid-eighties just as the virus spread throughout the western world and depending upon the date it’s given a name. One of the main characters will to some extent experience prejudice which stems both from their condition and from the sexual orientation and they will more than likely die during the course of the film while their friends and family look on helplessly and hopelessly. Before death though they’ll appear to have put their lives in order and proven to someone who once mistrusted them that they’re a real human being really.

The Witnesses
does all of these things. A young gay man, Manu (Johan Libéreau), moves to Paris and shares a hotel room in what transpires to be a brothel with his opera singing sister, Julie (Julie Depardieu). Cruising in a local park he meets Adrien (Michel Blanc), a medical doctor and they become inseparable and he’s then introduced to a middle class couple, Emmanuelle Béart’s Sarah, a writer and her husband Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), a local policeman. His appearance in all their lives disrupts the status quo particularly when he develops the virus and we watch his slow death, as those around him try and get on with things as best they can.

The film is indeed set in the 80s although there isn’t too much in the way of period detail – some of the fashions perhaps and some god-awful pop music. Téchiné is clearly wanting to show that the opening of the epidemic afflicted gay communities in the whole of the western world and it’s useful that Adrien is a doctor since it allows him to show the first hopeless steps in the research of the virus as it becomes clear that it’s nothing like anything that they’ve tackled before. Mehdi is a vice-cop and becomes part of what governments thought was the solution at the time of shutting down dens of iniquity. The director uses a very small ensemble which pays dividends as we can see the characters change during the two or three years that the film is set.

They’re the real reason for seeing this and there’s not really a weak link between them, the particular surprise being Bouajila whose initial one-note bullishness rapidly gives way as the story evolves and we find out that Béart has the strongest position in their marriage. Libéreau sparkles as Manu and deserves some recognition for bringing some shades to what’s otherwise a thankless role. Blanc (looking disconcertingly like a bald Woody Allen) is equally strong but the best performance of the lot is probably from Depardieu (daughter of Gerard) since despite having less to do than anyone seems just as prominent, this dignified woman whose somehow managed to find the niche in life that’s been denied to everyone else.

If there’s a problem it’s that in the end despite the cast and material everything is just a touch underdeveloped. Between the surprisingly abrupt opening and climax there’s enough interesting drama going on, but it never seems to get under the skin of the characters and worse you often the same emotional beats keep repeating which might be true to life but give the impression of a film which isn’t going anywhere fast. The screen is certainly filled with emotion, but it lacks the warmth of something like The Barbarian Invasions or the bite of Harry, He’s Here To Help. There is a structure – the opening Act is rather sunny, then the darkness and the return to a positive outlook (there are even captions) – but you do wonder if the film might have gained some reality and depth if these brackets had been less stringently adhered to giving the characters breathing space.

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