In the most spellbinding way, Robin Campillo’s AIDS crisis drama
BPM (Beats Per Minute) works from the outside in, first painting an electrifying picture of AIDS activism in France the early ’90s and then slowly focusing in on the lives of a handful of its members with increasing intensity.
The political turmoil — which mostly unfolds via magnificently written, head-spinning group debates and witty hallway chit-chat — is engrossing even when the plot is at a standstill, and while the character work doesn’t reach the depth of emotion one would hope for considering the subject matter, the film’s visual panache gives every moment of the film at least a cinematic richness.
At the height of the AIDS crisis in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the activist group ACT UP rose to prominence by organizing confrontational but non-violent protests against pharmaceutical companies that withheld research data from those suffering — and dying — from the widespread disease. BPM follows the Parisian chapter of the organization, which met regularly to brainstorm and debate how to best bring attention to their plight in the public eye. The time we spend with the group as they volley ideas, their meeting room all but exploding with passion, desperation, and a deep sense of togetherness, are the movie’s very best moments, and we’re treated to one of them in the film’s mesmerizing opener.
A handful of new members are briefed on ACT UP’s rules of debate (snap — don’t clap — to express approval so as not to interrupt the speakers; all debating must happen in the room and
not in the hallway) before we’re briskly thrown into a fervid tug of war over which way to steer the group’s agenda. Several members of the group believe their most recent protest was botched by a fake blood-filled balloon thrown too early at a government official; others argue the improvised act ruffled feathers in a way that would ultimately be advantageous to the movement. We jump back and forward in time between the debate and the protest in question, exploring both parties’ perspectives Rashomon-style but with a punk-rock edge.
It’s a joy to listen to Campillo and co-writer Philippe Mangeot’s characters bounce ideas and experiences off of each other with such vigor, which is a good thing since the group is perpetually split politically and ideologically, rarely making collective decisions without first engaging in a war of words and wits. Many of the scenes go on for over ten minutes, with many of the characters going into vivid detail about their life experiences, whether they’re HIV positive (“poz”) or not. At 140 minutes,
BPM has hefty runtime even for inspirational true stories like this one, but the film is riveting throughout and rarely plateaus. Each member of the group is so savvy and well-read on both AIDS and ACT UP’s ongoing political battles that it’s often hard to keep up with their lingo beat for beat, but even when the characters are engaged in casual conversation, the dialogue is so flowing and naturalistic that it’s easy to get blissfully lost in their high-minded, often flirtatious chatter.
It seems all but certain during the first act that the film will be a straight-up ensemble piece, bouncing around between multiple perspectives within the group, but as the story evolves, two characters emerge as the main players. One of the group’s most outspoken members, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, mesmerizing), finds a strong connection with one of the newbies, Nathan (Arnaud Valois), and we watch as their relationship flourishes and is tested as Sean’s condition deteriorates. The physical side of the romance is presented with utmost honesty and dovetails smoothly into pillow talk that provides some of the only character backstory details the film has to offer. It’s the elegance and deliberate pace of these long scenes that is BPM’s greatest virtue; Campillo gives us no choice but to sink into each scene deeper than most moviegoers might be used to, and it’s a beautiful thing if you’re willing to meet him halfway.
Without question, Sean is the film’s center of gravity. From the first scene on, he’s the walking embodiment of the resistance, screaming in the face of the businessmen who hold leisurely board meetings, wasting time as members of his community “croak” in the streets. His petite frame is counterbalanced by a larger-than-life renegade attitude that more often than not catapults him to the center of every debate and pisses a lot of people off. Biscayart is the star of the show by far and is so captivating onscreen that it can be difficult, at times, to be concerned with any of the other characters.
The other actors — including Antoine Reinartz and Adele Hanele as the group’s disciplined, occasionally bullheaded leaders — carry their weight, though none of them can match Biscayart’s towering charisma and energy. He’s a force of nature to be sure, but Sean still comes across like a real person, as do his ACT UP brothers and sisters.
BPM puts a human face on the AIDS crisis by exploring the private moments of these brave activists’ lives, soaking in their struggle and celebrating their bravery.