The AIDS crisis, while still a topic of discussion, isn’t the major plague it used to be. Thanks to a more open willingness to talk and medical advancements over the years, HIV and AIDS is nowhere near the death sentence it used to be, even if it still hasn’t been eradicated yet. Affecting mostly gay men during the 1980s and ’90s, the movement to end AIDS was stifled by a low public opinion of homosexuality and a complete shuddering of support from many government agencies, none more atrocious than the Reagan administration. It’s almost an atrocity in itself how so many queer youth today don’t know anything about the AIDS crisis and how it so horribly affected the gay community during this time. This wasn’t some disease like cancer, that, while still dangerous, was rare. This was a plague on our community thanks to society’s ignorance and unwillingness to teach safe sexual practices within the gay community. When it comes to the fight in France, it was an uphill battle just like in the U.S., with the government and many agencies offering little help to those affected by the disease. Robin Campillo chronicles the fight to end AIDS through activist group ACT UP during the ’90s in “BPM (Beats Per Minute) [120 battements par minute]), called “BPM” from this point on.
ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) Paris is the French arm of the international activism group putting pressure on government and medical agencies to expedite their fight against AIDS. Set in 1990, ACT UP focuses on disruption and making others uncomfortable with their own complacency with the disease, the group faces backlash from the public for not protesting peacefully. The group is made up of many makeups and mindsets, all with the one goal of ending AIDS once and for all. in the group, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) is the most outspoken, criticizing the group for not taking extreme enough measures to get the public involved in fighting AIDS. Sean strikes up a romance with new member Nathan (Arnaud Valois), who often times disagrees with Sean’s volatility within the group, but connects with his realness and worldview with his AIDS diagnosis.
“BPM” isn’t perfect, but what it’s good at, it excels at. The film is a great portrayal of the desperation faced in the gay community during the height of the AIDS epidemic, and it shows the different sides and stories of the epidemic from a non-American perspective that we often don’t get in the rare stories about the AIDS crisis we get in film. Much of the film takes place simply in the ACT UP meetings that they hold once weekly. The simple, yet effective dialogue between the ensemble about their work as activists is as moving as the more emotional scenes are in the film.
And emotional this film is, obviously. This is a film that really destroys you emotionally, but not one that’s terribly manipulative in any such way. It’s very unconventional in how the film portrays loss and death through the eyes of a group now becoming quite immune to the death of their friends. That doesn’t make the blows that “BPM” deals any less heartwrenching come its time. The film uses this unconventional nature to bring subtleties in loss out that you often don’t see in the grand scheme of things on film. It takes its time with it, and it’s grueling at times, but incredibly moving to watch.
Seeing that “BPM” is 140 minutes long, it takes its time with nearly everything. ACT UP meetings go on for 10+ minutes and conversations last for quite a while to nail character depth. For the first and last act of this film, it works. It’s engaging and moves the film at a nice pace to push the film on through its long runtime without ever feeling like it. During its second act, however, “BPM” slows down a lot, to which a lot of people might find nice, as it’s a bit of a reprieve from all the drama surrounding the characters. Yet, I found the hustle and bustle of ACT UP’s actions, slowing down really only makes the film feel like its screeching to a halt, rather than actually taking any sort of break when it comes to the tragedies these characters deal with.
Luckily, even in the slow scenes, “BPM” features some truly killer performances. While I often found myself disliking the character of Sean (especially in the beginning of the film), Pérez Biscayart’s performance is nothing short of show-stopping. His character is complicated, and often pretty unapproachable, but Pérez Biscayart finds a real balance in hitting both his characters volatility and his vulnerability. Valois also gives a wonderful performance as Nathan. His character at first comes across as the cliché “new guy to a tight-knit group” archetype, but come the final act of the film, Valois finds an emotional stride that’s brutally heartbreaking and moving. Another great supporting performance in the film comes from Adèle Haenel, who is coming up through the ranks of French film today. Her character of Sophie is an interesting one, and perhaps my favorite character in the film. She’s what I can only describe as a “realist extremist.” She wants to make ripples and provoke, but realizes that true change comes at the behest of those in power. Haenel’s performance is a wondrous mix of cold and warm, with a final scene that, while short on words, leaves a mark.
Being a French film, the film does do some pretty avant-garde things in its artistic approach to the film, which works at some points, but often times feels a bit out of place in a film such as this. Perhaps in another film with a less touchy subject, having some more mind-bending elements might work, but sometimes, its use in “BPM” feels a bit strange. Granted, it’s fairly tame for a typical French film that pushes the boundaries, but it still stands out.
“BPM” is important, but it isn’t perfect by any means. It has pacing and tonal issues, some of the characters and their motivations often come across poorly and the film is a little too artsy for the subject at hand, but it’s also an emotionally wrenching story with some really wonderful performances and a great screenplay behind it. ACT UP has always been known to ruffle feathers, and the way their story is told from their Paris sector is one that’s really important for people to know, especially that of queer youth ignorant of the history that as preceded their right to live freely. It’s a film one should see, but just don’t expect much conventionality out of it.
Directed by: Robin Campillo
Starring: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adèle Haenel, Antoine Reinartz, with Felix Maritaud, Ariel Borenstein, Aloïse Sauvage, Médhi Touré, Simon Bourgade, Simon Guélat, Catherine Vinatier, Théophile Ray, Saadia Bentaieb, Jean-François Auguste, Coralie Russier.
Runtime: 140 minutes
Rating: Not rated.
Now playing exclusively at Regal Ballantyne Village.
The Orchard presents, in association with Films Distribution and Memento Films, a Les Films de Pierre production, in co-production with France 3 Cinéma, Page 114, Memento Films Production and FD Production, with the participation of Canal+, Ciné+, France Télévisions, Centre National du Cinéma et de L’image Animée et des Nouvelles Technologies en Production, with support from Région Ile-de-France, Ciclic-Région Centre-Val de Loire, in partnership with CNC, Procirep, in association with Indéfilms 5, Cofinova 13, a film by Robin Campillo, “BPM (Beats Per Minute) [120 battements par minute]”