Like many of his colleagues, André Téchiné reviewed films for Cahiers du cinema, championing the work of auteur filmmakers the world over, before becoming a director. But unlike his colleagues, he never really became an auteur himself. He has his supporters, and actresses love working with him, but he has yet to define his cinematic personality, or create a real, enduring masterpiece. Just a few months ago, Kino Video (under its Kimstim wing) released an older Téchiné film, Scene of the Crime (1986), starring Catherine Deneuve. I happened to see it just before watching Téchiné's new film, The Witnesses. There was no real stylistic connection between the films; the former played like a Claude Chabrol thriller and the latter was more like an Eric Rohmer character study. But the most notable difference is that Scene of the Crime was made in the 1980s, and The Witnesses is set in the 1980s, but they actually have no visual similarity. Téchiné's new film uses lots of handheld cinematography, whereas Scene of the Crime was far more patient and steady.

It might help to know who Téchiné is before attempting to decipher The Witnesses. The picture goes in as many different directions as its maker's filmography. It begins as a Rohmer-like comedy of errors, albeit a stiff and half-baked one, starring five characters. Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart, gorgeous, even with a ridiculous haircut) is a writer and new mom who finds that she doesn't like motherhood; ironic, given that she has published several children's books. Her husband, Mehdi (Sami Bouajila) is a cop who likes flying planes in his off hours. Sarah's best friend is Adrien (the extraordinary Michel Blanc), a gay, middle-aged doctor who goes cruising in the parks for sex. He picks up Manu (Johan Libereau), and lets the young, carefree fellow stay with him, although Manu isn't interested in sex with his benefactor. Manu's sister is Julie (Julie Depardieu), a rising opera star who lives in a sleazy hotel mainly populated by hookers. It also looks as if there might have been a sixth character; Sarah's editor is mentioned more than just in passing, but he is only seen once. (For some reason, French movies, such as Va Savoir and Private Fears in Public Places, prefer the number six.)

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Unfortunately, this first hour is all too predictable, especially given a scene in which Sarah and Mehdi reveal that they have an open marriage: Manu is going to seduce Mehdi. It happens all too obviously when the two men go swimming during a holiday weekend, and cop Mehdi rescues helpless, nearly-drowned Manu with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. They begin a secret relationship, meeting for "plane rides," which usually turn into fumbling in the bushes or in car seats. Adrien gets jealous; he and Manu argue, but at the crux of the fight the doctor notices sores on Manu's chest.

Thus begins Act II: the AIDS era, circa 1984. I have to admit that Téchiné handles this section slightly better than the standard disease-of-the-week film. He moves quickly over the information, stating it matter-of-factly. Adrien, as a doctor, delves into research, driven by his love for Manu, and most of the information comes from him, rather than from scenes of sickbeds and suffering. In another scene, the spurned Mehdi arrives at Manu's doorstep and discovers his sick friend. He starts to clean up, grabbing a pile of dirty laundry. "It's caked with shit," warns Manu. "Doesn't scare me," Mehdi says without flinching. The other reason this segment works is the idea of retrospect; AIDS is still a crisis, of course, but it's shocking to imagine (or remember) those early days in which no one knew anything. Terrifying. The only misstep Téchiné makes here is including television news clips, taking us out of the story and adding artificial "importance" to his film.

The biggest surprise of The Witnesses is the final half-hour. Manu is gone, and we spend a little time with the remaining four characters as they get on with their lives. The typical AIDS drama would end with the death or perhaps the funeral, leaving the audience in tears. This movie is more concerned with ideas of life and hope. Once we realize that this has been Téchiné's theme all along -- and not just another disease-of-the-week film -- then all the mood changes and banalities begin to come into focus. The widescreen cinematography emphasizes sunlight and outdoors rather than sterile, soulless hospital rooms.

The performances start off in that clipped, French manner in which characters seem both too stiff and too honest (with the exception of Béart, who always retains a little mystery), but things warm up quickly as characters deal with real heartbreak rather than their own insecurities. As Mehdi, Sami Bouajila (The Siege, Days of Glory) makes the biggest leap, moving into a place of genuine sorrow and regret. Michel Blanc, who I had just seen in Patrice Leconte's Monsieur Hire, is amazing; he's a former comedian who can apparently do anything and transform into anyone. And Julie Depardieu -- daughter of Gerard -- is quite pretty and appears to do her own singing, but has little to do beyond that. It's the relative newcomer Johan Libereau that causes the problem; we've seen this character and this portrayal before, and he's a little too pat, a little too well defined for the first three-fourths of the picture. But in the end, it's the idea of Manu that matters more than the actual Manu, which is how The Witnesses actually works.