The lively opening chapter of André Téchiné’s (Wild Reeds, Alice et Martin) engrossing new ensemble piece captures the bright, colourful look and fruity feel of the Gallic comedy of manners as the love lives of a group of friends intertwine during the long, hot summer of 1984. Following the arrival of their first child, blocked novelist Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart) and her partner Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), an enthusiastic law enforcer with the Parisian vice squad, reiterate their committment to a healthy extramarital sex life. Then, on a trip to the seaside, a near-death experience draws Mehdi into a passionate affair with the blithe, promiscuous Manu (Johan Libereau).
After setting the stage Téchiné neatly confounds all expectation by moving the merciless chess piece of the AIDS epidemic into proceedings. Having won our sympathies in the opening reel it’s genuinely harrowing to witness the carefree Manu descend into bitterness and frustration as he succumbs to the disease.
As ever, Téchiné is concerned with the human drama behind the historical crisis, and the contrasting responses of his characters to Manu’s plight is compelling. While Mehdi retreats into denial and anxiety, the peevish Adrien, mobilised by love, goes to war with the virus, throwing himself into research and fundraising. Only the reaction of Béart’s Sarah, liberated by her proximity to this tragedy to pick up her pen once more, feels clumsy.
This hair-splitting aside, the intelligent, nuanced script deals with questions of social and sexual freedom in the pre and post-HIV/AIDS periods without ever allowing issues to overwhelm the fierce sympathy that is extended to the characters. While undoubtedly moving, this is one film about death that’s refreshingly free of melancholy and cloying sentiment and is, ultimately, life-affirming.
GFT, Glasgow, from Fri 19 Oct; Filmhouse, Edinburgh, from Fri 30 Nov.