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The Witnesses

André Téchiné Avoids Melodrama In Powerful Period Piece

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The Witnesses

Johan Libéreau, Michel Blanc, Emmanuelle Beart in a scene from "The Witnesses."

Strand Releasing
Manu (Johan Libéreau) is a beautiful boy. While cruising a park in Paris, he meets Adrien (Michel Blanc). He asks the besotted older man to protect his jacket while Manu heads into the bushes with another guy. Manu and Adrien become fast friends -- though Adrien would prefer to be much more.
Adrien is the dear friend of Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart, frequently dressed in yellow), a children's book writer who finds her self trapped with a baby she feels nothing for. Sarah is married to Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), a swarthy police officer who does not much believe in verbal communication. This unlikely group comes together to spent a weekend at Sarah's marvelous beach house on the Riviera. They drink drinks and they dance on the sunlit balcony and take a splendid boat trip. Even the neglected baby makes it on board. Before long, Manu makes an overt pass at the heterosexual Mehdi. The year is 1984, the time of the devastating outbreak of the AIDS epidemic.

Johan Libéreau and Sami Bouajila in a scene from "The Witnesses."

Strand Releasing
This may sound like a set-up for a whopping melodrama, but accomplished filmmaker André Téchiné's (Strayed, Changing Times) seventeenth feature film doesn't play like one. The constant unexpected twists and turns in The Witnesses are always presented matter-of-factly, without sentiment or histrionics.

Sarah's distaste for motherhood is what it is -- not what could be a wrenching emotional crisis. The sexual relationship that develops between Manu and Medhi is never an agonizing Brokeback Mountain-esque sort of affair. When Manu becomes ill, his rapid decline receives the same straight-forward treatment.

By no means, however, does Téchiné gloss over the ravages of the disease. Manu doesn't give maudlin monologues like the debilitated Ed Harris character in The Hours; The Witnesses continues without an enormous shift in tone, without sacrificing the emotional impact of Manu's condition. This film need not be approached with dread or trepidation; life, as witnessed by this small group of flawed but always empathetic characters, is a messy, ugly, and unfair business, but sometimes still surprisingly wonderful. World-weary Adrien is able to glean unexpected happiness from a cruise in the bushes. Sarah continues to wear yellow.

***

The Witnesses (2008): 112 min, not rated, in French with English subtitles. Distributed by Strand Releasing.

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