The film BPM (Beats Per Minute, or the original French title 120 Battlements Par Minute) could refer to dance music, but in this case, it is human heartbeats. It’s a very apt title, as this film goes after the heart of its story: the people of ACT UP Paris in the early 1990s. There is spectacle associated with demonstrations, which were designed to demand the attention of media, politicians, and medical and pharmaceutical authorities; but the film never loses track of its subjects.
The timely arrival of BPM rolls into a world of political turmoil, rampant bigotry, and violent outbreaks that are beginning to feel commonplace. This is the perfect time to reexamine the pinnacle of AIDS hysteria and the activism that turned the tide. It was a time when many politicians and higher-ups ignored AIDS… until ACT UP made the issue unavoidable.
Initial screenings of BPM have been enthusiastically received. At Cannes Film Festival, BPM captured the Grand Prix Award and a lengthy standing ovation. Additionally, BPM was selected as the official French entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards.
Where BPM differs from most previous AIDS dramas is the experience of writer/director Robin Campillo. A member of ACT UP in the 90s, his experience informs scenes beyond what is expected. During sweeping demonstrations, the focus on individuals and the core characters isn’t lost, even as the camera pans out to capture the enormity of the events. Likewise, activist meetings are more about exploring individuals through the questions they ask and their reactions. This is all new to them; nobody knows for sure what will work. Oh yeah, there’s cruising and flirting, and lots of it, just about everywhere. Finally: a film about AIDS history where reverence doesn’t stamp out reality.
When the film jumps into the flurry and turmoil of a civil disobedience protest, it still comes down to the individuals whose stories the film is telling. It does so with gravity, humor, and affection. Those elements are key to making BPM engaging and compelling.
Actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart is Sean, an explosive and sparkling young guy, who is living with HIV. Then there’s sturdy and angular Arnaud Valois as Nathan, a reserved ACT UP newbie who seems a bit overwhelmed. They become the axis for this swirling, pumping, forceful movie.
As Nathan and Sean fall in love, personal differences, shared visions, unavoidable fears, and sex help define their characters. Unlike many AIDS films, BPM puts sex where it belongs, within the story of two young and vibrant gay men, despite differing serostatuses. It’s convincing, frantic, sensual, fumbling, and messy.
Also unlike a raft of AIDS dramas, BPM cuts loose at the dance club with its characters, which may be the part that brought back the 90s most vividly for me. We danced and carried on ferociously. It was a celebration when all of our friends arrived. An AIDS diagnosis back then was a death sentence. Frequently I would hear someone was infected and when I tried to reach them, they were gone — out of reach or away from this mortal coil.
BPM doesn’t shy away from transmitting the grim aspect of that era: people were desperate, the next few days and weeks were uncertain, and pharmaceutical firms and politicians were unresponsive, even causing obstruction. Prompting acknowledgement and action were triumphs. And although BPM can’t avoid following beloved characters to their deaths, the film isn’t tragedy porn. It never loses its heart, optimism, and resolve.
Robin Campillo’s resume boasts respected films (The Class, Eastern Boys). His film They Came Back served as basis for British and French TV series (French/Les Revenant, and British/The Returned), a rich twist on the topic of zombies, about the confusing rise of the dead, who return home with no memory of death or perception of lost time. He is a masterful storyteller whose skill at defining characters is what drove the success of They Came Back/Revenants/Returned.
BPM opens exclusively for one week on Friday, October 10, at Landmark’s Esquire Theater: www.LandmarkTheatres.com
French with English subtitles