"The Witnesses" opens at the cusp of the age of AIDS. In 1984, gay men avidly cruise urban parks, heterosexual couples practice sexually open relationships and prostitutes casually go about their ancient business. The enormous changes that arrive with "the virus," and the way they alter the lives of four contradictory, flawed Parisians, form the basis of an understated yet powerful drama.

Manu (Johan Libéreau), a small-town teenager, arrives in the city to share the apartment of his sister Julie (Julie Depardieu), an aspiring opera singer, and explore his homosexuality. While looking for a pickup, Manu meets Adrien (Michel Blanc), a well-to-do older gay physician who admires his youth, beauty and free spirit. Manu and Adrien develop a platonic friendship that is closer to love on Adrien's side.

While on a boating outing with Adrien, Manu meets Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart), a wealthy writer, and Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), a vice cop. They have a chilly, neurotic relationship and routinely take other lovers, a situation that doesn't trouble Sarah "as long as I win," she says.

Mehdi discovers some unexpected stirrings when he rescues Manu from drowning, administers mouth-to-mouth and finds himself attracted to the promiscuous young man. Their deepening relationship is accepted with Gallic sophistication by Sarah, who uses the development as a plot point in her new novel, and by Adrien, who stifles his jealousy to preserve his friendships with all parties. A turning point in all these relationships arrives, however, as a peculiar new disease appears on the scene.

The film's sophistication is impressive as it traces the characters' reaction from anxiety to guilt, to mourning, to acceptance. Adrien makes it his personal and professional responsibility to eradicate AIDS. Manu impulsively vows to take his fate in his own hands. Julie casually dashes off a check to the cause. Only Mehdi, wrestling with his conflicted identity, sheds tears, then stifles them immediately.

Director Andre Techine's story is one of subtle emotional tones that require the most of an actor, and the cast is uniformly compelling. The film is shot in a lush style that is a counterpoint to the dire subject matter. Even in the face of death, dinner must be served, birthdays celebrated and the old motorboat needs to be taken out for one farewell spin. At its most tenuous, life stubbornly goes on.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186