The Beat Goes On: Campillo Mounts Generous Homage to ACT UP Paris
While there are several noted cinematic renderings of the early days of the AIDS crisis and the subsequent activism in response to a lack of resources, information, or humanity at the governmental level, Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute) is perhaps the first to present a sobering, gracefully humanizing homage in the completest sense possible to some of the brave men and women on the frontlines of these nightmarish years.
The recent HBO film based on Larry Kramer’s famed play The Normal Heart details the emergence of ACT UP New York, the first protest organization to demand resources, responses, and national attention to the crisis in the US. Campillo’s film is set a decade later and based on his experiences with ACT UP France. Honing in on a handful of vibrant characters valiantly and passionately committed to the cause while many faced their own imminent demise, Campillo’s approach is mostly methodical, meditative as a back-room portrait of agendas and discussions from a period which younger generations need tender reminding of.
Set in early 1990s Paris, activist group ACT UP, led by Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), is battling with local pharmaceutical companies refusing to divulge current medical developments which could potentially save lives. At the same time as they vie for national attention from President Francois Mitterand’s to address his administration’s lack of response, group members are involved in lively meetings to brainstorm stunts and slogans which often bring them in contact with police and the criminal justice system. While most of the members of ACT UP are HIV positive, newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois, who turns several heads upon arrival, is an exception, and soon strikes up a passionate relationship with the outspoken Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), whose health eventually begins to decline.
Campillo, who is best known as the screenwriter for Laurent Cantet (and recently Rebecca Zlotowski’s enigmatic Planetarium), broke out on his own with the 2013 sophomore pic Eastern Boys, wherein a troubled romance develops between an older Frenchman and a younger refugee who is part of a dangerous prostitution ring. With the French title 120 Beats Per Minute, (indicating an elevated heart-rate) the director seems to have modeled this after his script for Cantet’s The Class, which took home the Palme d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.
Much of this film’s two-hour plus running time is devoted to the same group discussion setting, and it is the platform where many of the film’s characters are allowed to shine, however briefly, such as Adele Haenel’s Sophie, representing the organization AIDES, working in conjunction with ACT UP. But the focal point of the film is Biscayart’s Sean and his romance with Arnaud Valois. Campillo certainly doesn’t shy away from a certain titillation factor with generous sex scenes between the eventual couple—but what he does differently is allow their relationship to be realistic (which involves Nathan’s concurrent flirtation with Thibault, the sort of extra-curricular realities censored out of queer narratives for the sake of appeasing a wider, heteronormative audience).
While we get a clearer sense of Biscayart’s character, Valois’ Nathan is only defined through shared stories of his sexual history, and if there are any major complaints of 120 Beats Per Minute it would be the lack of a clearer backstory for Nathan, which tends to hobble the emotional dimensions of his relationship with Sean. Both Biscayart and Valois, however, make for arresting screen personas, particularly Valois, who is given little background material to reveal (as a side note, his big break was back in 2006 with Nicole Garcia’s Charlie Says, but he’s been on hiatus since 2011). What we do know manages to convey a certain level of atonement regarding his altruistic need to care for Sean.
But Campillo rightly conjures the spirit of the period, a decade into the crisis and before the introduction of the cocktail which would eventually help curtail the death toll. Chatter about the arguments for a cure vs. a vaccine, as well as a rudimentary lesson on how HIV infects human cells are all part of a history now largely ignored by the gay community, in a contemporary period where actual HIV prophylactics have been developed with Prep Truvada, which has again had a significant impact on sexual tendencies.
Some beautifully edited club sequences, honing in on particles in light beams, are segues for microscopic renderings of HIV transmission as it evolves, set to the mournful breakdown of Bronski Beat. Exchanging dramatic hysterics for a portrait on grim determination during a period when public opinion was most certainly not in favor with equal rights for the LGBT community, BPM (Beats Per Minute) is, for once, a stellar consideration for some of the courageous souls who dedicated their lives to the activism which eventually resulted in necessary visibility.
Reviewed on May 19th at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival – Main Competition. 140 Mins.