“BPM” (Beats Per Minute) is easily one of the best movies of 2017. Told with deep sensitivity and amazing artistry, this radical love story is a thoughtful and moving dramatization of the early days of ACT UP Paris. Set in the early 1990s during the initial trials of the protease inhibitors, the movie is a wildly creative tribute to the fierce and prickly warriors who bravely fought to save their own lives and the lives of others. Its playing now at Landmark E Street Cinemas.
The movie — in French with English subtitles — opens as the activists prepare for a demonstration, but then jumps forward to a meeting where they try to understand what happened during the demo. Writer/director Robin Campillo continues to jump back and forth between the two events; the meeting is presented with clinical precision while the demo is presented in an impressionistic swirl of events seen from a variety of perspectives. Neither the activists nor the audience can fully comprehend what has happened; there is only the awareness that “silence = death” and “action = life.”
The activists continue to protest the callous indifference of the pharmaceutical companies, the church and the Mitterrand government, but Campillo also inserts moments of witty banter as the comrades celebrate on a subway ride home and flashes of sheer exuberance as the friends dance at a local disco.
Gradually, two characters emerge from the collective. Nathan is the newest member of ACT UP Paris; Sean is a seasoned veteran. Their first sexual encounter is presented with steamy intensity, yet their wide-ranging pillow talk is equally intimate. They exchange personal and sexual histories, discuss the logistics of condom usage and cement their bond. Campillo’s staging of the scene is fascinating.
As the collective and individual stories unfold, Campillo maintains a strong sense of momentum. He has a fluid sense of time and place that creates fascinating juxtapositions between scenes and a solid sense of narration that lets scene unfold at a natural pace. The movie is filled with seeming contradictions that Campillo resolves effortlessly. It is intellectual yet visceral, unsentimental yet deeply moving, passionate yet clinical. Campillo lets the movie embrace and embody these opposites, cannily putting the audience in the same position as the characters.
Campillo creates a riveting ensemble drama through his assured work with his actors. Even the smallest parts are distinctive and even the most unpleasant characters (the representatives of the pharmaceutical company) are presented with compassion.
The two leads (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart as Sean and Arnaud Valois as Nathan) have a palpable chemistry between them. They also nicely contrast each other; Sean is more volatile, more impulsive and more self-centered; Nathan is steadier, more introspective and more aware of the people and places around him.
The rest of the ensemble is equally strong and effective. As Thibault, the unofficial leader of ACT UP Paris, Antoine Reinartz effectively blends admirable idealism with necessary pragmatism. He’s manipulative on occasion, but he also cares deeply for the cause and his comrades. Catherine Vinatier is fiery as Hélène, the passionate and wily activist who joins ACT UP when her hemophiliac son contracts AIDS.
Campillo’s sharp work as writer and director is also ably supported by his adept collaboration with cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie, editors Stephanie Leger and Anita Roth and composer Arnaud Rebotini. One of the few weak spots in the production, unfortunately, are the terrible subtitles. The white letters are generally hard to read and often don’t keep pace with the rapid-fire dialogue. Non-French speakers still get the general sense of what’s going on, but it would be nice to be able to follow the dialogue more closely.
Drawing on his own experiences with ACT UP Paris, openly gay writer and director Robin Campillo creates a searing portrait of the past that also provides some guidance for the future. An audience and critical favorite at several domestic and international festivals, “BPM” won the Queer Palm and the Grand Prix at Cannes. It is the official French selection for the Best Foreign Language Film category for the Academy Awards.
“BPM” was released in France under the title “120 battements par minute,” a reference to the average human heart rate, but there is nothing average about this film or its characters. As one of the characters notes of a fallen comrade, “he lived politics in the first person.” “BPM” is a hot-blooded remembrance of hard-won battles fought with a desperate passion. It’s proudly queer, deeply erotic even in the face of illness and mortality, passionately engaging and ultimately heart-breaking, stuffed to the brim with fervent debate, gallows humor, sizzling sex, wild exuberance and a hard-won sense of community.