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‘BPM (Beats Per Minute)’ Director and Stars on Sex, Realism, and the Fluidity of Cinema

Written by Joshua Encinias on October 21, 2017 

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Act up! Fight back! Fight AIDS!

You don’t hear the United States branch of ACT UP’s (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) famous slogan in Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute), but its ethos courses through the film’s powerful love story.

Campillo spent his late twenties debating, organizing, and protesting as a member of ACT UP Paris. A quarter of a century later he’s telling a fictionalized account of their story. BPM won the Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival in May and swept through the New York Film Festival earlier this month, receiving standing ovations at both screenings.

The film, which is France’s Oscar entry, excels at rooting history in a relatable love story between Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a firebrand ACT UP activist living with the virus and Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a latecomer to the movement who ignored the plague throughout the 1980s. Set in the early 1990s, BPM dances between ACT UP members debating the ethics of their actions, the developing relationship between Sean and Nathan, and the club culture that gave LGBT people moments of relief.

Robin, Nahuel, and Arnaud spoke to us at length about the film and its strange, albeit welcomed, reception by American critics.

During Nathan’s ACT UP orientation, he’s told that even if he isn’t HIV positive, he’s going to be associated with the disease in the eyes of the public. When presented with this film, did either of consider repercussions of being associated with the disease?

Nahuel Pérez Biscayart: That’s a very American question. It’s crazy, right? All the questions about being out, being identified as positive. All those questions, it’s so strange, they all come from the States. And I think it’s because people and careers are so mixed. In France I never ask myself that question. Never. You’re just playing fiction. In film projects we don’t think in those terms.

Robin Campillo: We don’t care. And I think it’s even better if you’ve been playing a gay or HIV positive character.

Biscayart: It’s like, woah, you really went for it!

Arnaud Valois: For me it was a bit different because I was not acting anymore. When the casting director explained the project to me, I said why not try, because it was a good subject. Because it was really intense and engaged. That was really interesting for me.

That’s interesting, because the actors in Call Me By Your Name were critiqued by their own screenwriter James Ivory because they wouldn’t do full frontal nudity.

Campillo: The funny thing is I put a quite pornographic scene in my script which we didn’t shoot. But it’s very important to say to the actors that we will be at this level. [Everyone laughs.] It’s very important to be clear to each other. If they had told me during the shooting “I’m not going to do it. In fact,” I would have accepted because I could not oblige them to do what I want to do. It’s not possible. But we had this kind of agreement about what we were going to do and we talked. I wanted the film to be very sensual and of course sexual. I wanted to be really clear with them about that. It’s a very important thing, especially when you’re talking about AIDS. You want people to use a condom. All these details are important because that was our lives. We were having sex and talking about AIDS.

Valois: The main deal was not protecting yourself, just give everything in the scene.

Campillo: I told them it won’t be pornographic, you won’t see any sex. But I told them because you won’t see any sex they have to play the sexual act a lot. You have to be really involved in this moment to make us believe you are actually having sex.

Valois: Which is the case in your previous movie, Eastern Boys. You can’t see anything but it feels like you’re seeing something. That’s really strange.

Biscayart: What I like about the sex scenes in our film is also that they’re not like the typical performative sex scenes in which everyone gets beautiful and everything is all about giving a great performance. And that’s hard to play because you have to expose yourself in those awkward moments of having sex with somebody that isn’t idealized.

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The first sex scene where Nahuel’s character recounts his sexual encounter with a teacher was kind of spooky, with the teacher emerging in the scene.

Campillo: I thought it was kind of like a seance. And personally, when I have sex, it makes me think of the others I’ve had sex with. It’s like I’m connecting to a lot of people… oh, I shouldn’t say that. [Everyone laughs.] For me it’s like a natural thing. It’s like, when you’re French, when you go to a restaurant, go to dinner, you’re talking about food. So when you have sex you’re talking about sex with others. It’s like of like this… I shouldn’t say that.

What you’re saying makes me think of the final sex scene when Nathan is having sex with Thibault. Why are they having sex? Nathan’s lover just died and he’s having sex with the guy his lover had conflict with the entire film.

Campillo: For me it’s like friendly sex. After this kind of moment you need to connect with someone because you miss the body of the person you just lost. Of course, Thibault is waiting for that. At first in the script he was saying, “Oh my God, it’s my lucky day.” Something horrible to say. I loved the idea but I decided not to put it in the film. First of all, this kind of thing happened a lot. This scene is a little connected to a real thing I lived through. I remember a guy who lost his boyfriend made love with another guy and they slept on the same bed where he died. But that was the way were living. It was not like Nathan was shitting on Sean. It’s something else. They want to stay connected to life and to sexuality and to sensuality, especially in this moment.

Were Sean and Nathan based on real people?

Campillo: A little bit; some of the characters are connected to real people. I did a fiction with very realistic elements and very historical ideas I had in my head for many, many years. I think when I was in ACT UP I was recording everything. In order, maybe, to do a film about it a few years after. Like a quarter of a century after. There’s a part of me in Nathan but you know, as I say to my actors, I don’t have a “master plan” frame of mind. It’s just people I create with the actors because I don’t want the characters to be what I was thinking of when I was writing the script. I want the characters to become the actors. That’s the main thing for me. When Nathan’s talking about his past, it’s my story. But the rest, we are so different. He was inspired by a real character but not so much because they don’t exactly have the same history. It’s a fiction.

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Nathan isn’t HIV positive but he joins ACT UP. Is he doing so for solidarity?

Valois: I had a small conversation with Robin before shooting. Maybe Nathan has seen an action of ACT UP on television and his past came back to him. Saying, maybe the time is now, I need to face the disease and I need to act. I think he’s entering the group because of that.

Campillo: I think it’s not only a question of being guilty. It’s a question of not being synchronized with what happened in the 1980s. Because he was so protecting himself from the epidemic, that it took some distance. And because he took some distance, he didn’t live his life. The fact that he’s going to ACT UP is a way of being synchronized again to his own life. And he’s synchronized because of this relationship with Sean. For me that was the more important thing, to talk about a character who is very open when he gets into his groove because he wants to be synchronized with this effort which is the AIDS epidemic.

Valois: The time is now. No protection.

Why is so much of the film about ACT UP’s group debates over the ethics and morality of their actions?

Campillo: For me it’s like a science-fiction film, in a way. I’m revisiting my past. It’s like I think of the scene in very different space and times, different dimensions. The first dimension is this kind of brain which is the amphitheater. You have no windows, it’s all white and people are talking and imagining things or talking about an action that some of them did that was a little too violent. They are caught and trapped in this place and they are talking and the words are creating images, pictures. The other dimension are the actions. In the first scene for instance, they are talking about this action they’ve just done which was a little bit violent. Germain is talking about the way he sees that action. In the end, Sean, because of his rhetorical agility, convinces everyone that it was a good action and it was successful. I love this idea that you have dimensions which are very different. Another dimension is the club, which is another way of looking at the world because you’re in a dark place and nobody’s talking. They’re just dancing in the dark — it’s like the antithesis of the discussion scenes. I wanted to talk about the possibility of the words to be political, be powerful. The debates in ACT UP were very efficient. We were very good at deciding things, at dreaming action, creating a new political happening. It was like this because you had all those people who were coming from very different social worlds all together having this discussion. That was like collective intelligence was going on in this place. That’s why I chose this different dimension.

The film looks like a documentary. You had three cameras going at once, so did you actors feel like they were actually protesting and having debates?

Biscayart: Totally. Actually, the first rehearsal we had one month before principal photography, we were rehearsing for three days and I had this very weird feeling you have when you’re a kid. When you go to the theater and you just believe it all, just take it as real life. I was so shocked because it was not the first time I played in a film, but realness was in the air. When we were shooting, the fact that having to talk in front of a hundred people being an actor, not knowing everyone around you just put you in a very effervescent state. All of a sudden everyone would just look at you as an actor, not only as an activist. All the time I think it was very mixed. We being actors, activists, that excitement and that pressure of being an actor and also being able to create a discourse that would appeal to everyone around you.

Valois: We were very free. No marks on the ground, no you have to do this, stay here. He told us just do whatever you want and the camera would be on you. It didn’t feel like we were on set. It felt like real life.

Biscayart: At some points we were playing and the monitor was just like one meter away. It felt even that they were part of the debate.

Campillo: I must say that I don’t agree with this opposition of cinematic and naturalism. It’s like I put mice in a cage and say, oh these mice are very naturalistic. For me the film, the actors are so theatrical. I don’t know which director in France said “a film is a documentary of actors.” I think I felt it like this. For me, the actions are a little bit surreal. It’s not something very realistic, it’s like a hallucination. I love to talk about this opposition because most of the time when I see a film, I have a feeling that when you see a quarter of the film you know exactly what will be the aesthetic background of the film. When I talk about dimensions, I’m talking about the fact that I come from this form, there’s a kind of mutation and I go to another form. I like the idea of the cinema to be a little more fluid aesthetically than just be a way of doing this. When you are talking about naturalism, when Nathan’s talking about his past, you start with a scene that’s very realistic. People are around him. After a moment you are so focused on him you don’t hear people.

Biscayart: It’s not at all a documentary.

Campillo: It’s something else. I like this idea to change the emotion and form and the perception of the scene during a scene. For me that’s the most important thing about cinema.

Biscayart: Even the strobing light, nobody sees the artificiality of that. It’s like when we see animal documentaries and you see ants and you hear what they do. It’s just impossible to hear what ants do with their legs. Because you’ve got the sound you think it’s even more realistic and it’s absolutely fake.

Campillo: It’s artificial.

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Most of the actors are high energy all film, but Nahuel’s character has to decline. And for a large chunk of the film you’re playing a corpse. How did you play a dead body?

Biscayart: It’s so difficult! It’s funny because some people are like, okay, now you’ve got fun days. You’re just going to be laying down in a bed. I was like, I’m sorry, but this is very exhausting, even if you think I’m just relaxed. You’re not sleeping – you’re dead. And the body that’s dead is a corpse which has a certain rigidity you have to play. In order to play that you have to be very alive. But if you’re too alive and you start breathing and moving it’s going to be a contradiction. It was tough to be very active and tonic in my body to be dead. It’s such a contradiction. You’re not just relaxed. You’re exposing yourself, you’re creating stiffness.

Thinking of the long-term impact of BPM: John Waters’ early films were controversial and inspired people. But now he says he’s an institution. Do you think recreating the actions of ACT UP Paris will inspire people, or will people in power see it and go, “Oh, whatever, now we know what protesters are going to do”?

Campillo: Yes, the pharmacy people are going to say that anyway. They don’t mind what we are doing. I know them a little bit and it’s good advertising for them anyway. Even though they are the bad guys, we are talking about new drugs. For that it won’t change anything. I don’t do films hoping I’ll make a political difference. I’m not sure of that. I’m doing things because I’m having an intimate dialogue with one spectator in the cinema. Even if the film was a success in France, I’m just trying to connect people to this history, not in just a historic way. I’m trying to connect this story emotionally, sensually. I want them to feel. It’s like an emotional intelligence of what we were living. Of course because you make this connection of the past and this emotional history, people will think differently. I’m not trying to lecture people. I’m not trying to say I was such a good activist. I was not so much. I did what I thought was important for me to do. In a way, I wouldn’t have been a militant if there wasn’t this epidemic. I was obliged to do it. So I don’t want to give license to people, I just want people to get connected to this history and to understand emotionally.

Biscayart: I think that’s even more political than giving a lecture because it’s not intellectual.

Campillo: It’s another way to convince people politically. I was meant to be a director and not a militant. I did my militant time and I want to come back a director. So that’s my way to pay tribute to these moments. In France the film was a big success so that changed a lot of things. People took the film and put it on a political level to say to the government you should do that you should do this, and that’s important. But to be honest I didn’t do this film thinking of that, honestly.

BPM (Beats Per Minute) is now in limited release.


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