Sex and chance brought them together, one furtive summer night, in the cruising grounds of a wooded Parisian park. Adrien (Michel Blanc), a doctor: bourgeois, middle-aged, world-weary, on the prowl for boys. Manu (Johan Libéreau), a boy: beaming, naive, freshly arrived in Paris, on the prowl for experience. Flattered by each other's attentions, affectionate but chaste, Adrien and Manu become friends and soon depart for a holiday.
The Witnesses, written and directed by André Téchiné, is a dance of opposites: old and young, gay and straight, men and women, white-collar and blue-collar, light-skinned and dark-skinned, sickness and health. The first of three sections, labeled "Summer 1984, Happy Days," makes shrewd use of an interplay between city (work, structure, social hierarchy) and country (play, freedom, experimentation). Clambering up a wooded hill, framed against a brilliant sapphire sea, Adrien introduces Manu to Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart) — writer of children's books, anxious new mother, and wife of Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), a Parisian cop of Muslim descent — over a weekend getaway at her beachfront cottage.
Drinks are made, tensions are relaxed, and Téchiné sets the trio spinning through a bright round of dancing on the sun deck. "Happy Days" is all joie de vivre, joyously alert to the shared sentiments and social distinctions of its characters. The dance dissolves as smoothly as it formed, resolving into charmed small talk and a superbly attentive sequence: Rubbing sunscreen on his bald pate, Adrien gazes adoringly at Manu as he clambers up a tree. With two simple shots, obvious but apt, Téchiné advances an entire complex of meaning. The Witnesses will have much to tell about protection, risk, and overlapping spheres of existence.
Back in Paris, Manu bunks with his sister in a hotel targeted by the police for prostitution, while Sarah frets over her baby and the composition of her first "adult" book. Mehdi, meanwhile, marks both scenarios with his impatient, agitated state of mind. But soon enough it's back to the sea for another idyll — and fresh erotic complications.
It would please me to stop here and circle back through "Happy Days," tracing how Téchiné takes the subtlest measure of class, race, and sexual difference within his narrative, praising the velocity of his thought and lightness of touch. The first hour of Witnesses is the best thing of its kind since Kings and Queen, Arnaud Desplechin's dizzying meta-melodrama, though Téchiné meets that picture's onrushing richness sans dependence on rhetorical pyrotechnics. His movie burns with hard, clear light, even through the chill of chapter two, "Winter," whose shadows I hesitate to name.
Fair warning, then, as we follow Manu swimming to Mehdi, cramping up, and starting to drown. He's rescued (Manu Saved from Drowning — cheeky, Téchiné!); Mehdi will later mark this life-restoring embrace as the moment desire caught him by surprise. They become lovers, buttfucking at the summer camp where Mehdi secures seasonal employment (and a private spot for rendezvous) for his unlikely young friend — who, on a later visit from a jealous, shit-faced Adrien, begins to display symptoms of full-blown AIDS.
The "witnesses" to what now becomes clear: Téchiné is expending the full force of his imagination, in his keenest work since Strayed (2003), and, perhaps, his finest overall since the 1994 coming-of-age classic Wild Reeds, to reach back for a handle on the terrifying moment when the uninhibited world of gay men, and those who loved them, fell into the abyss. Disclosing its purpose as memorial and testament, The Witnesses forms a magnificent trilogy with Son Frère (2003), Patrice Chéreau's devastating account of fraternal devotion in the face of death, and the amazing, acerbic Before I Forget, a brooding and bitter tale of survival coming soon from Jacques Nolot, here lending an iconic cameo as the proprietor of Manu's hooker hotel.
We have Strand Releasing to thank for the stateside runs of these movies, each the work of a generation of gay French filmmakers born in the 1940s whose sensibilities have been equally and profoundly marked by the legacies of the nouvelle vague and of the AIDS epidemic. Even as it slackens in urgency, and despite the slightly miscalculated coda ("Summer Returns"), Téchiné's triumph of compassion and craft shames the American cinema's indifference to gay history.