The Witnesses is a 2007 French film about a group of friends living in Paris at the outset of HIV/AIDS. Set in 1984 and told in three parts, the film stars Johan Libéreau as Manu, Michel Blanc as Adrien, Emmanuelle Béart as Sarah and Sami Bouajila as Mehdi with Julie Depardieu in a supporting role as Manu’s older sister Julie, a rising opera singer.
Part 1: Happy Days (Summer 1984)
Manu is young, cute, full of life, carefree and always up for an adventure. Upon arriving in Paris and moving in with his sister, he heads to a local cruising spot where he meets Adrien. Though Manu has no sexual interest in Adrien (Manu actually asks Adrien to hold his coat so that he can hook up with a group of guys in the woods), the two become really good friends despite Adrien’s continued affection for Manu.
Sarah and Mehdi are an unmarried couple in an open relationship who just had their first child. Sarah is a writer looking to expand her career beyond children’s books. Mehdi is a vice cop looking to crack down on prostitution in the city (one of his targets is the hotel Julie lives in that actually functions as a brothel). Sarah’s career focus keeps her from connecting with the child (at one point she is writing with earplugs on and doesn’t hear or even listen out for the baby’s cries) – leaving Mehdi to take on more of a caretaker role.
On a weekend visit to Sarah’s mother’s beachfront property, Adrien brings Manu and introduces him to her and Mehdi. Shortly thereafter, Manu and Mehdi strike up a sexual relationship — under the guise of taking him flying. But finding it difficult to find other ways for them to hookup, Mehdi gets Manu a job as a server at a campsite outside Paris so that they’re able to maintain their affair.
Manu’s work and hookups with Mehdi leaves him very little time to keep in touch with Adrien – who withdraws socially and buries himself in his work. But unable to stop thinking about Manu, Adrien pays him a visit at the campsite. Once there, Manu tells Adrien about his relationship with Mehdi. In a flash of long-simmering anger, resentment and frustration, Adrien assaults Manu. Manu’s neighbors pull Adrien of off him and Manu takes Adrien into his trailer.
While downing a bottle of wine, Adrien confronts Manu about Mehdi and Manu more or less officially turns down Adrien, whose last glimmer of hope for anything more than friendship with Manu is finally extinguished. A drunken Adrien then takes his leave of Manu, but when Manu follows, Adrien notices blemishes indicative of HIV/AIDS on Manu’s partially-bare chest.
Manu takes a test and is found to be positive. Manu breaks things off with Mehdi and goes into near-seclusion.
Part 2: The War (Winter 1984/1985)
Mehdi, who had been trying to get in touch with Manu to no avail, shows up at the campsite and finds out about Manu’s illness. Scared and angry, Mehdi makes an appointment with Adrien, now heavily involved in HIV/AIDS research and funding, to get tested.
Manu eventually lands in the hospital and Julie, who by now has landed a small role in an opera and informed by Adrien of Manu’s condition, visits Manu in the hospital and tells him about the arrangements that have been made for him to convalesce at Adrien’s house once he’s released.
Meanwhile, after a botched lovemaking session with Sarah, Mehdi tells her about his pending blood test, which prompts her to take one of her own. The two temporarily separate pending the results of their testing — though for Mehdi, it was moreso out of shame for his actions than for anything else.
His results turn out to be negative and he and Sarah reconcile. Still, he continues his efforts to see Manu — who doesn’t want Mehdi to see him in his current state.
Out of the hospital and now recovering at Adrien’s house, Manu decides to record his life story and asks Adrien to secure a tape recorder for him.
Shortly after Christmas, Adrien, at Manu’s request, gives him a fatal dose of tranquilizers.
Sarah then begins work on a new novel – based on Manu’s recordings.
Part 3: Summer Returns
After finally letting Manu go (in a bittersweet moment at one of Julie’s performances), Adrien moves forward with that part of his life and returns to the cruising spot where he first met Manu. There, he meets another young man named Steve (played by the enticing Lorenzo Balducci) who is visiting Paris. Adrien takes him home and the two strike up a more romantic relationship than the one he never had with Manu.
Mehdi and his team close down a brothel masquerading as a hotel – which happens to be where Julie lives. She decides to leave Paris and all her reminders of Manu by pursuing her career in Munich.
Sarah finishes her manuscript – which she titles The Newcomer.
And at the end of the film, Sarah and Mehdi host Adrien and Steve at their son’s first birthday celebration – a literal boatload of fascinating dynamics if there ever was one.
Those fascinating dynamics are what I like most in The Witnesses – rarities in typical gay cinema from what I’ve seen of it over the years: the unapologetic mutually open relationship between Sarah and Mehdi; the ostensibly straight Mehdi and his obvious romantic love for Manu; the intergenerational relationship between Adrien and Manu as well as between Adrien and Steve that depicts Adrien as yearning but not desperate (a dynamic that also goes largely unexplored in gay cinema); the confliction between Adrien and Mehdi over Manu; and the potentially awkward situation between Manu and Sarah at his last Christmas dinner that winds up being anything but.
And though the specter of HIV/AIDS looms over the second part of the film once Manu is diagnosed, it wisely doesn’t take over the latter part of it. Perhaps this is due to the fact that it was a few years before the epidemic first hit France and was subsequently less decimating to its population than in other areas of the world — that, or THIS particular film was simply about THIS particular set of friends and how HIV/AIDS affected THEM without regard to the true devastation that was already occurring elsewhere.
Either way, The Witnesses is worth watching to find out for yourself.