Ah, the early ’90s: I was in college, jeans didn’t fit right, George H.W. Bush was president, MTV was relevant, and AIDS was as deadly as ever. In the United States, the number of new cases peaked around 1993 (https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5021a2.htm). During the 1980s, a slew of activist organizations sprung up in response to government indifference and inaction, largely but not exclusively that of the Reagan administration, and Big Pharma shadiness — organizations like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Queer Nation, and perhaps most famous (or infamous) ACT UP.
This is the backdrop of Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute), an imperfect yet captivating and rich period piece that portrays the AIDS crisis with accuracy, drama, a little humor, and the slightest bit of nostalgia — ill-fitting jeans be damned. BPM puts us smack in the middle of the Parisian chapter of ACT UP, which seems constantly on the brink of self-destruction with all the debating, infighting, and struggling for control among its members.
Campillo starts with a broad picture, introducing us to the group through hunky Nathan (Arnaud Valois), who joins ACT UP for reasons that he keeps guarded. Right up front, members of the group confront radical Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a scrawny firecracker who favors the back of the room. He went off script during a botched protest involving balloons filled with fake blood.
Sean’s motive is soon clear: he’s running out of time and has none to spare for diplomacy. His impatience and prickliness are particularly acute when he’s dealing with the chapter’s leader, Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), and elder comember Sophie (Adèle Haenel), who tends to be the voice of reason.
Those in the group don’t shy away from saying what’s on their mind, and their debates are vigorous to say the least. Interestingly, there’s a lot of flirting and cruising going on. Nathan encounters some attitude, particularly from the poz members — he happens to be HIV negative. He and Sean hit it off, though. Campillo zooms in on them as they get intimate, letting their relationship take center stage. We get their backstories over pillow talk, and it makes for some of the finest moments in this film. They get closer as Sean’s health deteriorates. Campillo brings the group back to the fore by the end, displaying the strong sense of community that has been there all along. It outshines all the bickering and dysfunction.
BPM is an accomplishment on many levels. The historical perspective is solid, giving the whole thing an authentic feel, almost like a documentary. Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie’s faded color palette and lighting actually look like the ‘90s. Campillo and Philippe Mangeot’s screenplay is smartly written, loaded with sharp dialogue that engages even when the activity level drops. The narrative arc here is terrific. The end could use some minor editing, but otherwise the long scenes and slow pace work because we’re getting a lot of information. While each actor carries his or her own weight, Pérez Biscayart easily emerges as the star.
Politics, ideology, and HIV status all draw lines in this group, but its members are united by a shared mission. Plus, they’ve got lives to lead, however much time they have left. BPM is a gentle — and somehow very French — reminder that life goes on.
With Felix Maritaud, Médhi Touré, Aloïse Sauvage, Simon Bourgade, Catherine Vinatier, Saadia Ben Taieb, Ariel Borenstein, Théophile Ray, Simon Guélat, Jean-François Auguste, Coralie Russier, Samuel Churin, Yves Heck, Emmanuel Ménard, Pauline Guimard, François Rabette
Production: Les Films de Pierre, France 3 Cinéma, Page 114, Memento Films, FD Production
Distribution: Memento Films
(AMC River East) B+
Chicago International Film Festival