The last five minutes of BPM (Beats per Minute) are extraordinary. Director Robin Campillo takes all the strands of his story and cuts them together into an intoxicating, heartbreaking montage. Men and women are dancing their hearts out at a nightclub, while a man whose lover died spends the night with a friend, pouring out his grief in bed; all the while the ACT UP community makes one more triumphant political statement. The personal and the political are not separable–not for people living with HIV at the end of the last century.
While the daytime activism in the movie has a more naturalistic, documentary feel, there’s a dreamy quality to the night, when bodies and minds are free to explore. Campillo frequently cuts together scenes just like the ending, finding a shared intimacy in bodies dancing together in public to the privacy of two men sharing their first sexual experience together. We’ve even pulled inside the body of a poz man to look at his infected cells. In every space, sorrow and joy accompany each other. Where there is love and connection, the camera also finds pain and loss.
BPM focuses on the Paris chapter of ACT UP, the AIDS activism group originally founded in New York, as they conduct regular meetings, march in pride festivals, and plan public demonstrations and classroom takeovers. And of course, they grieve together. As the AIDS epidemic spreads through France in the early 1990s, ACT UP volunteers are in the streets doing the work. Even in the presumed openness of Paris society, there are so many bureaucratic and institutional hurdles to overcome. We see the inner workings of the organization, and its internal divisions as members debate how radical their actions should be. Did their protest go too far? The movie doesn’t try to tell us the answers; progress can be chaotic.
While the story of this ACT UP chapter plays out, the movie also narrows focus to two men who meet through ACT UP and fall for each other: longtime member Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and new recruit Nathan (Arnaud Valois). Sean is wiry and impatient, unashamedly outspoken; he opens up to Nathan about contracting HIV his first time having sex, from his teacher. Nathan joins the group as one of the few members who’s not HIV-positive, but he has his own reasons for being there.
Campillo, along with co-writer Philippe Mangeot, seemingly based his characters on colleagues from his own ACT UP activism. It’s that feeling of seeing behind the curtain, and getting to celebrate the people who really fought during the epidemic, that makes the movie so affecting. These young activists are often at odds as they fight to achieve recognition and results. When Sean is in the hospital, Thibault (one of the ACT UP leaders) comes to visit, but Sean has no interest in his forced kindness and asks him to leave. He’s unapologetic because there’s no other way to be, not with the clock ticking for him and so many others.
It’s the ACT UP story that makes BPM feel new and necessary, filling in a vital side of the fight less often told in stories about the AIDS epidemic. Beautiful and devastating, this movie is a tribute to the many who fought and still fight–and a reminder of the power of many voices joined together, their individual lives creating a messy, passionate, hopeful way forward.