In this renewed era of protest — by women, by scientists, by environmentalists, by antifascists, by Black Lives Matter — BPM revisits one beleaguered minority whose redress of grievances took the form of guerilla actions and bracing street theater.
Writer-director Robin Campillo and co-screenwriter Philippe Mangeot drew on their own experiences with the activist AIDS organization ACT UP to script this stimulating and poignant portrait of a community under siege from a disease, an indifferent government and a profit-motivated pharmaceutical industry. This Cannes Grand Prix winner is France’s version of The Normal Heart, and it’s also its country’s official Academy Awards entry for next year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
This is a superlative choice, and a long time coming for a journeyman talent like Campillo, who first arrived on my radar with one of the most underrated films of the Aughts: 2004’s They Came Back, a scientifically precise and meditative spin on the zombie genre. He also scripted two art-gems for Laurent Cantet, Heading South and The Class.
BPM is shot in the argumentative, intellectually roiling, documentary spirit of the latter, but instead of a classroom of cheeky high schoolers, a goodly portion of its 142-minute running time is set during weekly meetings of the Paris ACT UP branch in the early 1990s. This is where the group, led by diplomatic Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), debates its slogans, its media outreach, its posters — one of which includes a graphic close-up of anal sex, to be plastered on city walls — and its radical demonstrations. These pointed rabbles, filmed with an embedded sense of closeness, are filled with internecine squabbles with less aggressive AIDS nonprofits and much opinionated hair-splitting within ACT UP itself. (These splinter arguments accurately display a problem with the left generally, which apparently was as true in France in 1992 as it was in the U.S. in 2016.)
The group is most unified when it takes to the streets, to corporate offices, to public forums. In the movie’s propulsive opening, ACT UP disrupts a politician’s speech by hijacking his lectern, calling him out on the government’s disinterest in the LGBTQ community, and pelting him with a bag of artificial blood, which splatters on his three-piece suit like a tomato hurled at a stage actor in Victorian England. The faux blood is ACT UP’s signature; they’ll soon deploy it all over the office furniture, carpets and senior staff of a major pharmaceutical company, which they assert is suppressing the trial results of a new protease inhibitor that could combat their disease. ACT UP’s members are arrested routinely, each one a notch on their publicity belt.
You may question their tactics, but you cannot deny their urgency. With only weak drugs to mitigate their symptoms, their members die daily. One of their activists suffers frequent fainting spells; another, the charismatic Sean (an award-worthy Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), endures the film’s most precipitous decline, which is managed alongside his new partner Nathan (Arnaud Valois), an HIV-negative activist he meets in ACT UP.
BPM is tender, intimate and deeply empathetic, but more importantly, it’s laudably unsentimental. Sean mocks the very idea of a cloying, post-AIDS character transformation. In a parody of a trailer-ready bromide, he wistfully comments that since he acquired the disease, “it’s as if I’ve lived things more intensely,” only to reveal that he’s just kidding — to the resounding belly laughs of his like-minded colleagues.
This straight-shooting presentation extends to its depictions of soft-core sex and death — the prior beautiful, natural and arousing, the latter painfully protracted and yet somehow sudden. Perhaps better than any movie I’ve seen, BPM depicts the agony and the ecstasy of being a gay man at the height of the AIDS epidemic, sometimes within the same sequence.
In his most stunning segments, Campillo shows us that the personal and the political were, and are, forever linked. In a sequence I’ll never forget, one character’s final, heavy, deathbed gasps are intercut with the results of his group’s most ambitious action, the pollution of the Seine with fake blood, viewed in apocalyptic aerial vistas. Now that’s how to send a message.
BPM. Director: Robin Campillo; Cast: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Antoine Reinartz, Adèle Haenel, Felix Maritaud; Distributor: Orchard; in French with English subtitles; Opens: Friday at Lake Worth Playhouse’s Stonzek Theater