“A sweeping combination of singular human drama and a breathtaking pastiche of bodies and minds in motion for a cause.”
by Ken Bakely
Staring death in the face – slow, agonizing death from a disease claiming lives at a terrifying rate – the characters in Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute) respond with life. Set in the early 1990s, the film follows the Parisian branch of ACT UP, Larry Kramer’s loud and indelible activist group that spoke truth to power when governments and pharmaceutical companies dragged their feet in concocting a meaningful response to the HIV/AIDS crisis. The movie is just as energetic as its inspiration: in fact, it’s flat-out electric. A sweeping combination of singular human drama and a breathtaking pastiche of bodies and minds in motion for a cause, Campillo crafts a story epic in scope and specific in placement, yet he never loses sight of a universal and timeless core.
How does he do this? Consider his juxtaposition of two recurring elements: the organization’s weekly meetings and its field demonstrations. The former is a hotbed of disagreement, bound, however ostensibly, by basic public decorum and parliamentary procedure. Members deride bad ideas with cutting remarks, or express their own with impassioned and free-flowing impromptu speeches. Campillo focuses on the group in its mixed parts – their connections to the disease all intimate but diverse, their worldviews aligned in this issue, but divergent in others. But when they settle on a plan, BPM is equally compelling in its expression of activism through anger.
The original New York chapter of ACT UP gained attention and spread influence for its public acts: interrupting meetings, staging mass “die-ins,” and other confrontational methods. This film dramatizes its French counterpart with a faithful effusiveness. Fake blood is spattered on business executives and politicians to represent the dead, and school health classes are interrupted by a dispatch of safe sex pamphlets. If the police are called in to restore order, members drop to the ground, offering no resistance, so the officers will have to remove them as if they are carrying out corpses.
There is no hyperbole in this, since many members are HIV positive, the disease affecting them at various stages. BPM eventually follows Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). He’s as young, feisty, and outspoken as anyone, and through depicting his active self marginalized by his condition, Campillo and Biscayart underline the deep personal tragedy that the disease ravages on its victims and loved ones. His emotions are realized with extensive care – thorough and complex, but messy all the same. His sexuality is depicted with a refreshing frankness, and his relationship with fellow member Nathan (Arnaud Valois) is by turns heartwarming and heartrending in the difficulties it will inevitably encounter. The character is always believable because he is not a mere audience surrogate, but a piece of the proverbial puzzle – an elemental agent in the film’s larger world, fractional in scale but critical to understanding what the picture looks like.
For those fighting HIV/AIDS in the peak years of the epidemic, the largest social obstacle was the thick stigma draped around it. From the start, the disease has disproportionately affected racial and sexual minorities, as well as other socially disadvantaged groups. The largely conformist Western culture of the 1980s and 1990s was all too comfortable with sweeping them under the rug. BPM’s greatest strength comes in taking us through the struggle to gain a foothold in the public sphere. While officials make spineless, non-falsifiable claims of forthcoming progress, Campillo’s characters demand more. They never stop fighting, and it’s this propelling and dynamic thrust from which the film finds its pulsating verve. The French title translates to a specific number: 120 Beats Per Minute, a heart rate of someone in full movement, exercising and expelling energy.
What makes this kinetic nature so continually effective is that it comes from the characters and their connections, and is roundly extrapolated to BPM’s aesthetic and tempo. Jeanne Lapoirie’s cinematography makes use of rich lighting and complementary staging. Even the drab whites and grays of the weekly meeting room illuminate the people onscreen and allow them to shine in every space, as much as the frenetic strobe lighting of a dance scene set in a nightclub. Campillo’s humanism is beautifully honest, his faith in these individuals resonating in each frame and line of dialogue. It functions as a window into a particular moment in history, but by the end of the movie, has also become a broadly accessible call to action. Dissatisfaction and desperate cries for change turn from sentiments to realities. Public mobilization forces a response from those in power, beyond the meaningless sympathies they prefer to sputter on autopilot. This film reiterates an old statement with new perspective, as it conveys the truth in ACT UP’s simple and striking motto: silence equals death.