About halfway through André Téchiné's drama The Witnesses, a married couple has a heart-to-heart. "Maybe we could decide to be faithful, like ordinary couples," suggests Mehdi (Indigènes' Sami Bouajila).
"No, I love you too much for that," replies his wife, Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart).
Oh, did I mention that The Witnesses is a French film?
At first The Witnesses feels like a typical Gallic exploration of relationships on screen, proving purposefully blasé about sex while keeping the motivations oblique. The first section, set in 1984 and titled "Happy Days," introduces the two primary couples at such a dizzying speed, it's as if the fragmented scenes echo the pairs' faulty connections. Adrien (Monsieur Hire's Michel Blanc), a gay, fiftyish doctor, picks up free-spirited Manu (Johan Libéreau) and begins an unhappily (for Adrien) chaste friendship. Meanwhile, vice cop Mehdi and children's book author Sarah deal with their new baby, Mehdi's sexual exploration and Sarah's discovery that she doesn't like kids.
The film's second half, titled "War," complicates the relationships even further, not unlike wartime separations. The Witnesses doesn't dramatize literal combat but the European front of the most notorious, wide-ranging health crisis of the mid-1980s, which turns Adrien into a medical crusader and Mehdi into an enforcer of brutal crackdowns against the sex industry.
The Witnesses' strength rests on four superb performances. Béart remains astonishingly beautiful (and comfortable in revealing her body) without minimizing some unpleasant facets of her role. Blanc shows how a disaster for the gay community turns Adrien from one of life's victims into a champion. Libéreau rises above the clichés for a "life force" character, and Bouajila makes Mehdi unpredictably passionate, with a selfishness that has unexpected depths.
Near the conclusion, Téchiné indulges in some artistic shortcuts, such as a too-neat resolution of the plot and an opera performance, to easily give the film an epiphany. Nevertheless, Téchiné's film provides a fascinating case study of how social dislocations can change some people irrevocably, while leaving other relationships unscathed. The Witnesses offers a compelling, affecting story almost in spite of itself.