Director: Robin Campillo
Runtime: 143 minutes
Mostlyindies.com grading: A+
[Seen October 9th at the New York Film Festival, where it received the second of two standing ovations, and that is rare.]
They say that the closer the drama is to one’s real life experience the stronger the story that comes out of it. Nothing could be closer to the truth than the viewing of Robin Campillo’s aggressive yet tender drama BPM (120 Beats Per Minute) that makes its bow at the Angelika and the Lincoln Center October 20th and is France’s strongest submission to the Oscars in decades. Campillo, in discussing his film during the Q & A, spoke about being an Act-Up activist in the Paris Chapter during the 80s and 90s and literally seeing his then lover die of AIDs while no cure was visible in sight; his and the actions of this force of nature that was gay activism eventually led to the release of the medicine that would curb the corrosive effect of the AIDs virus and at least allow those who were positive to live (and love) if at all for a little while more than if they had not been given anything at all.
From the moment it starts, BPM is two hours of a literal battle not for equality, but for the very right to simply exist. Much like its title implicates there are no pauses for contemplation for contemplation’s sake; Campillo’s film is, without machine guns, a war movie that involves a rather broad spectrum of people at the bottom of society: gays, lesbians, and those infected with the blood of HIV-positive people. Anyone who either witnessed or survived the 80s and 90s can and will tell you that to even be gay during that period was tantamount to already have the ‘cancer’, and thus, be not just an undesirable, but also be unworthy to life itself. In short, it was a period where gay men and women would have to slip back into the dark, remain silent, and let AIDs do its infernal work.
So what was one to do then? Once it was made clear that those in the bottom could never aspire to have their voices heard, the only thing that anyone then had left was becoming the cry in the dark. BPM illustrates this effect in a chilling sequence where the members of Act-Up Paris infiltrate a pharmaceutical corporation and start throwing bags of fake blood everywhere and unto their executives. The intent is to shock, of course, and it makes its mark, but it’s also to sling back the blood corporate France had on their hands. It’s hard not to see a clear correlation between these events and the many that transpired here in the US when Act-Up protested, how one can view this and not be reminded of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and David France’s searing documentary How to Survive a Plague. [Side note: David France’s newest documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson is currently in cinemas and on Netflix.]
Robin Campillo moves between the documentary — Act-Up meetings and protests — and the personal, inserting smaller yet more poignant stories that stand out from the mass of activists that occupy the large tapestry of participants. First in line we get Nathan (Arnaud Valois, standing in for Campillo), a twenty-something young man who’s joined Act-Up and is seen as a bit of an outsider since he’s negative (most aren’t). There he meets the very vocal Sean Dalmazo (Argentinean actor Nathan Perez Viscayart in a compelling, riveting performance) who’s passion for life is as big as his need for action from those at the top to deliver the drugs he needs to live a bit longer. There is the hemophiliac kid who’s mother unwittingly gave infected blood to for months, effectively infecting him. Also shown are Sophie (Adele Haenel, a tremedous presence, but underused — also the only marquee name in the movie) and Thibaut (Antoine Reinartz), an activist with whom Sean clashes often.
The brilliance of this ferocious movie is that it never pauses for maudlin and I loved that. Too often, AIDs-related movies treated its characters’ deaths like over-long operas to be played out in slow motion as if somewhat fascinated at the fact that yes, gay men did die dramatic deaths, disfigured, weighing less than their clothes, listening to some campy classical music. [And as a side note, I noted the conspicuous absence of sex in AIDs movies made in our own soil raises the question, do we still, even now in 2017, still have issues with gay sex represented on film?] This movie uses house — the music of the time — to express its defiance at the face of death. Even the central romance that becomes born under the threat of death — that of Sean and Nathan — is played with a vibrancy I have not seen in any American film about the same topic. It’s probably what will make this stand out from its American counterparts, that it knows death (for many) is looming, but embraces life, the ultimate spectacular now, as its own affirmation. And the sex? Confessional, revealing, and ultimately, a means to mourn those who have passed on, who were loved.
BPM opens at the Angelika and the Film Society of Lincoln Center October 20.