In the late 1980s and early ’90s, the tactics employed by the activists of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power)—an advocacy group that originated within New York’s LGBTQ community—were deemed extremist by those who viewed the devastating virus as punishment for deviant behavior.
Journalist and filmmaker David France delved into this subject with his Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary (and subsequent nonfiction book), How to Survive a Plague, which employed archival footage to chronicle the efforts of ACT UP during the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Now, French filmmaker Robin Campillo offers a fictionalized companion piece, BPM (Beats Per Minute), to dramatize the Paris-based offshoot of the group to which he belonged. Beyond the stamp of the personal, Campillo also relies on his formidable talents as a screenwriter to deeply humanize a handful of members from ACT UP’s Gallic wing.
Perhaps best known for They Came Back, his debut as a writer/director, Campillo also co-wrote The Class, Laurent Cantet’s 2008 Palme d’Or winner that focused on the frequently tumultuous interactions between a racially diverse group of high school students in Paris as their teacher tries to focus their debates over the course of a year. That experience has paid rich dividends here, as much of BPM’s drama also takes place within a classroom setting, with ACT UP’s Parisian members regularly meeting in a lecture hall to plan their demonstrations in chaotic group discussions. And like the students in The Class, not all of these activists who “lived politics in first person” are alike.
Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), the diplomatic leader of the group, is—like many of his peers—a young, HIV-positive gay man. But there are also a few women, a couple of them serving alongside Thibault in leadership positions: the passionate Sophie (Adèle Haenel) and the slightly less vocal Eva (Aloïse Sauvage). Although both are also gay, the diverse organization isn’t exclusively homosexual or even “poz,” as evidenced by Hélène (Catherine Vinatier), a middle-aged straight woman who attends the weekly meetings with her shaggy-haired son, Max (Félix Maritaud), a straight teenager who contracted HIV via blood transfusion.
Max at least has a sense of humor about how he acquired his status, mixing up fake blood in the bathtub he shares with his mother, which he then fills into condoms to be tossed like water-balloon grenades at the walls and windows of Big Pharma companies—the same businesses that are slow to share their findings, directly impacting the infected who don’t have time on their side. Or, during the film’s opening moments, when he impulsively hurls one of those blood bombs into the face of a government official who’s in the middle of making a public presentation on their handling of the AIDS crisis when the group storms the stage.
The impromptu shock tactics continue when Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a provocative founding member of the Paris chapter, decides to handcuff the civil servant as the group chants slogans and blows whistles. During all this, Campillo introduces his nonlinear editing style, intercutting the chaotic scene—which had been planned as a nonviolent protest—with the fallout after the meeting, as the group displays its fractured viewpoints, including the ideological differences between the level-headed Thibault and the mischievous Sean, who nevertheless is given a platform to speak.
Taking in the chaos is Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a handsome stranger who’s attending his first ACT UP assembly. The HIV-negative newbie functions as our eyes and ears, an audience surrogate as he gradually becomes active in the organization—and romantically involved with Sean. The love affair builds to a shattering conclusion as the film realistically presents the unfair inevitability of declining health during the early days of the epidemic. But rather than settle into soapy melodrama between two lovers, Campillo continues to focus on the culture of the group and how each individual responds to the events in their own ways, presented as only a person with firsthand experience could.
Even though I’d recommend you bring tissues, be aware that Campillo isn’t just unblinking with his look at the devastating effects of AIDS, but also with his compassionate look at a hopeful community that still finds time to celebrate life. The film’s title not only refers to heart rates tracked on hospital monitors, but also to the house music beats that pulse throughout the picture during its occasional breaks on the disco floor. And while silence might equal death on the hospital monitors, Arnaud Rebotini’s electronic score will ensure that these heroes won’t go quietly into the night. Ultimately, it’s these sights and sounds that will send the activists out on a high that will resonate with viewers long after the lights have come up. ◆
Starring Arnaud Valois, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Antoine Reinartz, Adèle Haenel, Aloïse Sauvage, Catherine Vinatier, Félix Maritaud, Ariel Borenstein, Simon Bourgade, Médhi Touré, Simon Guélat, Coralie Russier, Théophile Ray, Jérôme Clément-Wilz, Jean-François Auguste, Saadia Bentaïeb and Samuel Churin. Written by Robin Campillo in collaboration with Philippe Mangeot. Directed by Campillo. At the Brattle Theatre on Feb. 2-8. In French with English subtitles.