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‘BPM (Beats Per Minute)’ Is a Moving Testament to the Fight Against AIDS

The travails of ACT UP Paris in the early ’90s are depicted with documentary-like detail by filmmaker Robin Campillo

A screenshot of an activist celebrating in ‘BPM (Beats Per Minute)’ The Orchards

Early in BPM (Beats Per Minute), a group of young activists storms the French headquarters of a pharmaceutical company. These are members of the Paris branch of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, a.k.a. ACT UP, the organization founded in 1987 in New York City to promote the political cause of people fighting the disease. The members of ACT UP Paris have got signs that read ASSASSIN. They’ve got whistles, red balloons, and squeeze bottles full of fake blood: nerve-jangling shout-outs to the widespread cultural fear of contamination. Fear, as they understand it, is a weapon.

Above all, they have demands. It is the early 1990s, 10 years into the worldwide AIDS crisis, and drugmakers have yet to release data on a new form of treatment—a protease inhibitor—that could save lives. When we meet them for the first time, the members of ACT UP Paris have just gotten over a misbegotten protest in which they handcuffed a French health official at a political summit and doused him in fake blood—all in front of a live audience. It was their way of berating France for trying to sweep the AIDS crisis and its many faces—queer people, junkies, sex workers, hemophiliacs—under the rug. But it was a botched protest. Now, in the offices of one of the most powerful pharmaceutical companies in the country, the activists are painting the walls and carpets red with exploding fake-blood balloons, scaring the shit out of the company’s employees, who demand patience. “We don’t have time,” screams Sean, a vibrant queer radical with HIV, in subtitled French. “We’re croaking, get it?” He and the rest of the group get arrested. Later that night, reconvened in the dark safety of a gay club, the members of ACT UP Paris do what they always do to bond after a busy afternoon of direct action: They dance it off.

One of the enduring lessons of groups like ACT UP is that politics isn’t merely who you are or what you stand for: It’s what you do. BPM, written and directed by Moroccan-born French filmmaker Robin Campillo, is a movie as sensitive to who its characters are—by and large, people living with HIV/AIDS—as it is to what they plan to do about it. That post-protest dance scene is a case in point. The space of the club at this moment, for these people, is where pleasure collides with politics. Campillo sustains a contagious, loving mood, slowing down the bodies, pushing in on faces, dousing us in ecstatic visions of intimacy that, in the broader context of spreading disease and ongoing political neglect, can’t help but feel radical. Just when you realize as much, Campillo pulls back from the dance floor, training our eyes on the dust getting kicked up in front of a spotlight. Soon we zoom in and that dust becomes molecules, and soon after that those molecules resemble germs. Germs are everywhere in the air of this safe place. Despite this, there is no fear. We share in it. It’s a radical idea of queer life under siege that suffuses the entire movie.

BPM, which won the Grand Prix, the equivalent of second place at Cannes, earlier this year, isn’t always as inventive or incisive as it is in this moment. But it is always richly observant. Even its flaws are lovely in their intent: You can’t help but be moved. Maybe that’s partly because, despite being set in the early ’90s, the movie feels alive and distinctly present-tense. It’s steeped in a sense of immediacy drawn, in part, from factors hovering just outside of the movie. Recent history bleeds into our experience of it. One watching those club scenes, for example, can’t help but recall the devastating Pulse nightclub shooting, in Orlando, which resulted in the deaths of 49 clubgoers last year. And an American audience will undoubtedly watch BPM’s long, complex scenes detailing ACT UP’s meetings, wherein the activists debate the value of militancy and various other forms of protest, and think of the contemporary protest movements whose travails have lately dominated our own news cycles.

Some things never change. HIV/AIDS has largely, as a political priority for LGBT organizations, fallen in urgency to issues like same-sex marriage. But it was only a month and a half ago that the promising theater composer Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) died of AIDS-related illnesses, just nine weeks after testing positive for HIV. He was 41. It was shocking. “It feels like a brutal reminder of another time,” his friend Jonathan Marc Sherman told The New York Times, speaking for many of us. Dying of AIDS is far from the norm, or so we’d like to think, particularly if, like myself, we’re too young to remember when AIDS was a crisis (in the West, at least).

Into all of this launches BPM, a movie that, at its best, offers a clear vision of how ACT UP functioned and what it meant to the people in it. Campillo, himself an alum of ACT UP Paris, depicts the group, and all of its ups and downs and inner conflicts, with the documentary precision of an insider. There’s a service element to this, too. When the movie starts, we see a group of new volunteers at a weekly meeting getting the rundown of how the organization works—a crash course undertaken for the sake of the audience, no doubt. First we get the history. Then, the meeting rules: no debating membership issues in the hall, for example—bring it inside for the full group to discuss. Don’t run overlong when speaking. Snap when you agree. Hiss when you don’t. Remember: This is a political activist group, not a clinical group, despite having a deep interest in knowing the science behind the advocacy. Also: It is not only the queer populace but the rest of society’s vulnerable that needs defending too: junkies, sex workers, immigrants, hemophiliacs, prisoners, and the rest. The most important thing is a reminder of what making oneself visible within the organization means. This is an group for which, from the outside, allyship is indistinguishable from identity. As a member says: “You must accept to be viewed by the public as HIV-positive.”

The rules set the tone for much of the action of BPM, which is anchored by long, thorough discussions of the group’s strategies for informing the public and waging war against pharmaceutical companies (among others). The meetings take place in a classroom with stadium seating, with all the members looking down at a huge chalkboard being scribbled on by the group’s multiple leaders. Questions abound, and, at times, amid disagreement, Campillo makes the back row of the classroom—the most elevated seats in the house—feel like a high moral perch. Here sit all the troublemakers—the “back-row radicals,” as someone calls them—and, thus, it’s where much of the movie’s argumentative jousting originates. Is the role of ACT UP to shock the public, to piss people off? Is it possible to cooperate with pharma? Is handcuffing a state health official too much? There are debates over language (is “I want you to live” too depressing for a Pride slogan?) and representation (is assembling a pom-pom team for Pride too camp?), all of them falling along clear lines separating the radicals from the rest. To the public, they’re all raving radicals, of course. But from within the group, it’s not so. Campillo understands this.

This is the side of the AIDS crisis we don’t really see in movies, or if we do, we leave it to documentaries, like How to Survive a Plague. But fiction films are in conversation with history too. There’s an exceptional moment in BPM when a young history student named Jérémie, who dies of AIDS not long after joining the group, describes the overthrow of the French monarchy, offering the movie an impromptu history of French radicalism. His words overlay not only images from those earlier revolutions, but also news footage of the real ACT UP from the ’80s and ’90s. Campillo’s intentions are clear: We’re to see ACT UP within the broader history of French Revolution, and the victims of AIDS—people like Jéremié—as martyrs for that cause. Movies about AIDS often bypass the politics and instead bombard us with heroic victims. Rare is the movie that makes political organizing—of any kind—its subject. In BPM, there is a clear connective tissue binding together these spheres of sex, disease, and politics. In Campillo’s hands, ACT UP’s meetings play out in seemingly real time, as if it were their purpose to rehearse in theory what direct action—protests and the like—will eventually put to practice.

But nothing, not even the protests themselves, is as richly imagined or vibrant as the conversations preceding them. This eventually becomes a problem. Campillo deploys a realistic style in which everything—lighting, editing, acting style—feels unsentimentally natural. There’s a downside to this: You start to notice what’s missing. Besides pharma execs, we don’t see much interaction with people outside of ACT UP, for example, which is a curious choice. As the movie reminds us, this is a time when gay men are complaining that talking about AIDS at Pride is a buzzkill. It scares people. And it’s intriguing to watch a movie in which that distance, between ACT UP’s mission and the community it serves, arises as unquestioned subtext, coursing through the movie like an elephant in the room. The idea of a broader queer community begins to feel painfully abstract. Is that intentional? Campillo’s movie never amounts to anything like a critique, or even an engagement with this idea. No, it’s purely evidence of the limits of this brand of realism, which, in its borrowed documentary essence, has a tendency to foreclose discussion of anything the movie doesn’t explicitly represent. If you don’t see a broader community or even sense the movie trying to evoke one, it’s not because those people don’t exist: It’s because the movie hasn’t thought of them.

It’s when Campillo starts to zero in on a specific couple within the group that the movie becomes less procedural and more human. Ideologically, it becomes more vague. You understand the movie wanting to celebrate individual lives—to remind us, as the fully unfurled AIDS Memorial Quilt does, that people are what’s at stake in this crisis, not just politics. Sean, the queer radical, takes a liking to Nathan, a smart, masculine newcomer to the group who’s HIV negative. They have sex (with condoms), talk, and support each other at meetings. Sean, played by Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, is the real standout here. I love the candor of Biscayart’s performance. He has a knowing glint in his eye and a sense of mischief that he wields, in his work as an activist, as righteous anger. Sean is dying. And Biscayart has a way of making you feel like he’s seen everything; he trains his gaze on someone and seems, instantly, to have summed them up. When he drifts into profundity, he laughs it off. When he becomes angry at his illness, he makes no excuses for that anger. His intimacy with Nathan is shot through with warmth, even history. What queer love means at this specific moment, as lives are being swept up into the maw of a worldwide crisis, is one of the intangible but wonderfully observed things Campillo’s movie understands.

Yet the movie is so close to the ground and so practical in every other way that lapses can’t help but pile up in the margins. Everyone’s on medication, for example. How are they paying for it? In 1989, The New York Times reported, in an editorial titled “AZT’s Inhuman Cost,” that the antiretroviral drug for treating AIDS could cost up to $8,000. What does Sean—who has progressed to Kaposi’s sarcoma—do for a living, such that it affords him the ability to live? This is no minor detail. BPM is a movie that otherwise painstakingly documents HIV/AIDS as a process: the doctor’s visits, the needles, the spread of telltale KS patches on the bottoms of Sean’s feet. And money is no minor detail for a movie about ACT UP, an organization premised on the very question of medical access.

Maybe this spells the difference between a radical movie and a movie that’s merely about radicals. Campillo documents ACT UP’s ideals; it might be a separate project to make a movie that tries to live up to them. There’s a good, quick scene between Sean and Nathan in which they flirtatiously make a game out of guessing the occupations of ACT UP’s other members, so it’s not as if Campillo is unaware. But the concern is reduced here to a chance for these two lovers to sneak away and talk to each other—for the movie to assert its interest in queer love. That’s politics too, of course, but these scenes make me miss the confrontational radicalism promised by so much of the rest of the movie. I don’t entirely know what to do with a movie about ACT UP, which tries to find a compromise between love and politics by leaning in on the radical character falling in love. When Nathan asks what Sean does for a living, Sean says, “I’m poz. It’s as simple as that.”

As an ideological premise, it almost feels too easy. But then, watching the movie, it’s hard to deny that Sean has made this cause his life. It is even harder to deny that this is because his own life is at stake. The tragedy of the political fight against AIDS, for Sean, is that his own fight ends with him becoming a martyr rather than getting to live on, fighting the fight. The first time I saw BPM, at one of the New York Film Festival’s large public screenings, I was overwhelmed by this thread of the movie, and by Sean in particular. That was undoubtedly in part because of the chemistry of the crowd: I was sitting, I realized afterward, among veterans of ACT UP New York, and their overwhelming support for the movie was contagious. The second time I saw it, at a regular critics’ screening, I was a little less taken with it as a movie but nonetheless impressed with it as a document. BPM resists becoming a tragedy, even as it documents one. You could say it resists becoming the resistance, too, but there’ll always be a chance to make that movie. In the meantime, Campillo has given us a hard-won, loving look at history.