The Heart Goes Pitter-Patter for 'BPM'

BPM (Beats Per Minute) (120 battements par minute)
(France, 140 min.)
Dir. Robin Campillo, Writ. Robin Campillo, Philippe Mangeot
Starring: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adèle Haenel, Antoine Reinartz, Ariel Borenstein, Mehdi Touré
Nahuel Pérez Biscayart stars in BPM.
The Orchard
Expect your heart to skip a beat during BPM. It’s impossible to avoid feeling a stirring pitter-patter of the chest in this invigorating and rewarding drama about courageous AIDS activists. BPM (Beats Per Minute) dramatizes the story of the Paris faction of ACT UP, a committed band of activists from the LGBTQ community fighting to make the French government and big pharma be quicker to respond to the growing AIDS crisis. The film, which won four prizes at Cannes including the Grand Prix and is France’s bid in the Best Foreign Language Film race, is a stirring tale of a community asserting its voice in the face of adversity. Director Robin Campillo presents a group of individuals united by their lust for life and their hunger to see another tomorrow, and the vibrant pulse of BPM is truly life affirming.

BPM drops viewers into the heart of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1990s. People are dying in terrifying numbers. Misinformation and poor education are increasing the toll of Parisians afflicted with AIDS and HIV. Ignorance and prejudice are the worst contagions to go unreported in the few official publications on the new disease, but the members of ACT UP do their damnedest to put the lives of their friends and AIDS victims across the world on record.

Campillo shows that this effort invites radical action in addition to civil protest and educational awareness campaigns. Their leader, Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), is a bit of a lame duck when it comes to shaking up the establishment. Other ACT UP-ers, like Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, whose exuberant performance is a vital life force for the film), are anxiously aware that they do not have the time to wait patiently and complacently for the government to take serious action. For HIV positive members of the group, and those with full-blown AIDS, the time to play by the establishment’s rules has long passed.

BPM dramatizes an array of tactics and demonstrations used by ACT UP to draw awareness to AIDS. Part of the campaign is to wake up the researchers, pharmaceutical companies, and politicians into realizing that inaction leaves blood on their hands. These demonstrations include relatively radical actions such as storming the offices of a drug company with balloons filled with fake blood and signs branding employees as assassins. Watch the employees of the drug company recoil with fear as if the gooey red corn syrup splashed on their ugly carpets is contagious. There isn’t much hope for people like Sean when their supposed saviours can’t see the people beyond the disease.

The urgency of the AIDS crisis becomes Biblical when ACT UP dyes the waters of the Seine red as an unsettling and defiant protest. Campillo silently zooms out from the red waters that run under the bridges of Paris and pulls back to show the city divided by the blood of AIDS victims. Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie darkens the cityscape with cold greys that contrast ominously with the violent red of the water. This sight, like something eerie out of an Edward Burtynsky photograph in Manufactured Landscapes, is a poignant symbol of man-made devastation.

Other tactics offer rallying cries for the queer community to show itself and affirm life in the face of death. Sean, for example, encourages ACT UP to take the dire and stuffy Pride parade and turn it into a gay affair. Throngs of cheerleaders, mostly men, shake their booties and pink pompoms while chanting campy slogans about AIDS awareness. This tactic, buoyed largely by Sean’s peppy spirit, works joyously for the crowd and activists alike.

Activism is messy, however, as BPM valiantly illustrates through the emotionally charged demonstrations enacted by the ACT UP members. In between the scenes of the protests are the meetings in which ACT UP debates how best to mobilize its members. The group has a system for letting one another speak with poetry slam finger snaps offering a placebo for claps and polite hisses replacing boos. But the orderly fashion only goes so far when peoples’ lives are on the line and BPM features heated and passionate exchanges between members as they decide the best course of action to bring tangible results. These debates become very heated when members override one another, challenge authority, and create dissension among the ranks, but they’re among the rawest and most authentic scenes of the film as they illustrate the challenges of creating a movement from a moment of uncertainty and fear.

The members deal with personal losses and struggles, too, which are part of the experiences that fuel their activism. Deaths among the group inspire marches to draw attention to another life taken and create a visible call for accountability. Members of the group face rapidly declining health and the film shows in frank and unsentimental detail the painful experience of watching a loved one die. The final prolonged death in the film makes BPM emotionally exhausting--and at nearly two and a half hours, physically exhausting as well--but it's important to grieve with the characters and join them as they come up for air in the end.

BPM emphasizes life, though, and the film finds a radiant heartbeat in the relationship that blossoms between Sean and new ACT UP member Nathan (Arnaud Valois). The two young men share the experience of living in the moment, learning to express their relationship within the safe practices they preach. Nathan isn’t a “pos,” as Sean calls it in the film’s intimate vernacular, and BPM passionately depicts the potential for a safe, healthy physical and romantic relationship. Fear-mongering AIDS propaganda, be damned.

Campillo lets these characters thrive in the safe spaces they create for themselves, particularly the nightclubs where they come together and let loose after each protest or demonstration. Buoyed by the euphoric pulse of the techno bass, the house music of the film is a heartbeat. The beat pumps life into the community and BPM as the deep lingering sound ensures that these activists won’t retreat silently into the night.

BPM is now playing in Ottawa at The ByTowne and Toronto at the Lightbox.