Sometimes a movie doesn’t need much character development to make an impact. The ensemble cast that comprise Robin Campillo’s AIDS activists in BPM (Beats Per Minute) all work together to be the same voice. Through this group, the director captures a force that resonates more in message than in any of the conventional, dramatic sparks you might find in a Hollywood version of this story. This is one of the most politically-minded movies to come around in quite some time as Campillo stages heated strategy sessions between the activists of ACT UP like a Godard cinematic political essay post-La Chinoise. Through effective direction, the activism on display here is inspiring enough to rile one up to set aside preoccupations and try to make a difference in the world.
Campillo hasn’t really made a splash as a director over the years, unless you count 2013’s vastly underseen (at least stateside) Eastern Boys. Rather, he’s made a name for himself as the writer of Laurent Cantet’s excellent dramas, especially the masterful The Class and Time Out. BPM (Beats Per Minute) isn’t bringing anything new to the game, but its brilliant moments lie in the humanity that exists in people wanting to make a difference in the harshest of times. ACT UP is an organization that first started in the 1990s in New York, while that city was battling the epidemic in personal, harrowing and frustrating ways, and was meant to fight AIDS and the corrupt powers that delayed any attempt at a cure. The organization eventually built different branches, including one in France, which this film is based on.
Campillo’s film has the members of France’s late-90s ACT UP movement stage parades, riots, interventions, and even ambush pharma offices in the greater area by throwing balloon-filled blood on windows and at pharma people. It’s all about the message they want to send. There isn’t any attempt here by Campillo to tell a conventional story or preach an agenda as much as to give us a fly-on-the-wall view of activism at its most passionate and, yes, sometimes militant. If anything, the closest we have to a more customary arc is when one of the main characters starts dying of AIDS and Campillo focuses the final stretch of his film to this character’s fight to survive.
If there is a main character, it is Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a loudmouth of verbal passion that gets at the center of every debate in the group. His rebel fireworks ignite the rest of his allies into wreaking havoc all across the city for the sake of change. He falls for Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a newly added member of ACT UP, who decides to join in their debates and public demonstrations. Sean and Nathan eventually start seeing each other and the sexual chemistry they have is sensually shown in brilliantly-edited sequences which display the erotic fervor this couple has for each other. The intimacy Campillo displays in the sex scenes is groundbreaking for an LGBT film and recalls the similarly lengthy and explicit sequences of 2013’s Palme d’Or-winning Blue is the Warmest Color.
While this romantic aspect gives a backbone to the fight at the center of the drama, the aforementioned invasions of various different pharmaceutical offices are the film’s highlights, bringing a documentary style feel with intimate hand-held camera. The writer-director makes sure we feel the danger that comes with such tactics, especially when the cops show up and try to bend the rules of the law to send a clear cut message to the group: these kind of actions won’t fly.
There’s no question that Campillo fully endorses the tactics on display as he, too, was a part of a similar group back in the early 90s. Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie’s camera is backing up the group every step of the way as they embark on a mission to have their message heard loud and clear. Campillo similarly channels the group he’s portraying by taking directorial risks, creating a film that never feels plainly like a mouthpiece for a vital issue, but embodying it with intense formal power and raw humanity.
BPM (Beats Per Minute) premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and opens on October 27. See our coverage below.