Directed by veteran French film director Andre Techine, "The Witnesses" ("Les Temoins") tells the story of five closely intertwined but deeply isolated characters living in Paris at the dawn of the AIDS crisis. Adrien, Manu, Mehdi, Sarah and Julie are bound by family, love and sex but divided by race, class, sexual orientation and vocation.
In another film, perhaps, the disease, which when it appears is so unknown as to prompt questions about how it's cured, would have been used as the boundary-breaking metaphor that ultimately links the characters, but Techine is too subtle a filmmaker for that. He does, however, present the illness as a harsh light that illuminates their relationships and brings their true natures into relief.
In summer 1984, while cruising in the park one night, lonely doctor Adrien (Michel Blanc) meets Manu (Johan Liberau), recently arrived in Paris from the south. Adrien is soon madly in love with the free-spirited young man, who lives with his opera-singing sister Julie (Julie Depardieu) in a hooker hotel being staked out by the vice squad.
High up in the vice unit is Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), who also happens to be married to Sarah (Emmanuelle Beart), a children's book writer who is Adrien's best friend. Mehdi and Sarah have just had their first child, and Sarah is having trouble adjusting. She uses earplugs to drown out the sound of the baby's crying and finds herself unable to work on her novel. Adrien introduces Manu to Sarah and Mehdi one weekend at Sarah's wealthy mother's house on the beach, but it's not until much later that Manu and Mehdi get involved.
Sarah and Julie are closely bound up with their work, to the point that they put it before their relationships in a way that the men in the story don't.
Julie's outward sweetness and warmth camouflage her remove, whereas Beart's Sarah is prickly and difficult. When Mehdi pays attention to the baby she ignores, she strips and throws him a seductive glance. Not that there are major life lessons to be drawn from this or any of the other behaviors here. Mehdi's attraction to Manu, for instance, comes out of the blue. The tone of "The Witnesses" is one of randomness.
This makes for an ambling narrative, but an atmospheric one that feels authentic despite its unlikely character pairings.
"The Witnesses." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd. West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.