What a wonderful year 2017 was for gay-themed movies. Not only did we see a masterpiece like Call Me by Your Name, but God’s Own Country also had a compelling gay love affair. The French BPM offered the most political approach of the three and earned comparisons with the American play ”The Normal Heart”. Written by Larry Kramer, that story depicted the AIDS crisis in New York City during the 1980s and was informed by Kramer’s own experiences. BPM took us to France a decade later; the heartbreak had a similar impact.
Introducing us to ACT UP
In the early 1990s, the activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) has made its way from the U.S. to France and we become a fly on the wall during one of their meetings. Newcomers are told not to clap their hands when they agree with whoever’s speaking, but snap their fingers instead so as not to disturb the pace. Because ACT UP meetings are intense and move briskly– and that’s also true when it comes to their campaigns and actions, targeting among others a pharmaceutical company. Their strategy (acts of protests where fake blood is thrown at ”opponents”) is a hotly debated issue, but the group leader Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) tries to keep the peace.
One of the group’s most combative, and flamboyant, members is Sean Dalmazo (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) who’s young but has been around for quite some time; he’s HIV-positive but stable. When the HIV-negative Nathan (Arnaud Valois) joins the group, they’re attracted to each other…
Fought back tears
When the Cannes jury presented their choice for the Palme d’Or in 2017, many were surprised to see the superior BPM lose to The Square. Even the president of the jury himself, Pedro Almodóvar, was disappointed that his view hadn’t prevailed and fought back tears as he declared his love for what Robin Campillo had achieved. Perhaps the film does have greater meaning to gay audiences, but it should be universally relevant.
Campillo and Philippe Mangeot drew from their experiences as they wrote the screenplay, devoting equal attention to the controversial but relevant work of the activists and the love affair between Nathan and Sean. There’s also rich portraits of supporting characters, including a very young activist whose AIDS progresses at a terrifying pace, killing him quickly. Some of the fury and actions of ACT UP against pharmaceutical companies and politicians may initially come across as counterproductive and annoying, but that’s part of the debate within the film. As we get to know these passionate and desperate young men and women, we understand their plight and why attention-grabbing measures must be taken to raise awareness. Especially in schools where teachers fail to talk frankly to their students about the value of contraceptives – and danger of HIV, to both boys and girls.
The filmmakers, along with cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie, find many striking moments of beauty during the protests, little postcards to serve as memorabilia of when the activists’ work seems to have the greatest personal impact, often accompanied by engaging choices for the soundtrack. The final half hour is unforgettably moving, as Sean’s AIDS reaches its final stage, forcing Nathan to make a huge decision and confronting the ACT UP group to a ritual of mourning that emphasizes what they do in fact have in common.
I mentioned how BPM should be relevant to any kind of audience, but at the same time the film is unapologetically honest when it comes to gay sex. There’s a masturbation scene that must be considered the most touching ever made. All in all, some kind of balance between honesty and crowd-pleasing is achieved.
BPM (Beats per Minute) 2017-France. 143 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Hugues Charbonneau, Marie-Ange Luciani. Directed and edited by Robin Campillo. Screenplay: Robin Campillo, Philippe Mangeot. Cinematography: Jeanne Lapoirie. Cast: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart (Sean Dalmazo), Arnaud Valois (Nathan), Adèle Haenel (Sophie), Antoine Reinartz (Thibault), Felix Maritaud, Médhi Touré.
Trivia: Original title: 120 battements par minute. Alternative title: 120 BPM (Beats per Minute).
Cannes: Grand Prize of the Jury. European Film Awards: Best Editor.
Last word: “It was more about loneliness than disease that I wanted to represent at the end of the film. Because my mother died a few months before I finished the script, and when she was in the hospital, it reminded me of the friends I knew at this moment, because people, at some point, are in a very strange state. You have a very weird contact with them because it is like they are in a tunnel, in another place that we can’t imagine. I wanted to represent that more than the Kaposi’s sarcoma or this kind of thing. I wanted to show this intuition that the person is ultimately in a place that is closer to death than to life.” (Campillo, Film Comment)