In the early 1990's, Act-Up Paris AIDS activists protest, educate, live, love, die and dance to "BPM (Beats Per Minute)".
You might think you cannot be bothered seeing a 142 minute French movie about AIDS activists, especially if you saw the 2012 documentary "How to Survive a Plague" about the original ACT-UP movement in New York, but you'd be missing 2017's best feature film. Reflecting on his own memories as an ACT-UP member in the early 90's, writer/director Robin Campillo ("Les Revenants") has made an intimate epic about the passions and politics which drive and complicate activism. The film is centered on one moving romance between Sean Dalmazo (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, "Grand Central"), a young but senior member who ruffles feathers as easily as wearing them, and Nathan (Arnaud Valois, André Téchiné's "The Girl on the Train"), the quiet, hunky new guy drawn to the 'poz' (tested positive). Campillo's assured and artistic direction of his story ensures that supporting players also come into focus, his film like a living tapestry unfurling stories large and small.
The film opens with at a WM (weekly meeting) chaired by Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), who, in a bit of exposition explains process rules to new members (agreement with a speaker is to be signalled by snapping fingers, not applause, in order to keep the agenda moving, etc.). He's joined at the front of the room by Eva (Aloïse Sauvage) and Sophie (Adèle Haenel, "Water Lillies," "House of Pleasure"), the latter conducting a post mortem of their recent protest at an AFLS (France's anti-AIDS agency) event which she believes went seriously south. Sean, one of the instigators, turns opinion around when he notes the positive press their tactics garnered. There is further disagreement at a meeting at Thibault's, Nathan's query about vaccines dismissed by the sick desperately awaiting a cure.
Campillo's wide net slowly closes into more intimate scenes between Sean and Nathan, their attraction cemented when Sean responds to a homophobic high schooler at an impromptu educational event by kissing Nathan. Their erotically charged consummation also reveals their histories as Sean relates over flashbacks how his first time at sixteen with his math teacher resulted in infection, Nathan's story revealing a troubling guilt which will guide his actions going forward.
With his big eyes set in a small, heart-shaped face, Biscayart makes Sean an unforgettable character, his small frame housing punk rock attitude that even the debilitating illness which takes him cannot silence. Valois is his opposite, big, muscular yet far less showy, the actor gradually turning Nathan's reticence into quiet compassion, a strength signifying maturity. Reinartz plays the film's most polarizing character well, Thibault's political approach putting him at odds with many while trying to keep the peace. Ariel Borenstein is affecting as declining student Jérémie, Haenel intense and brooding as one of the movement's lesbian members. Catherine Vinatier ("A Good Year") is the mother of the infected sixteen year-old Marco (Théophile Ray), the two producing the fake blood which is thrown during protests. As Sean's mother, Saadia Bentaïeb illustrates grace within grief, a late-breaking den mother to the group.
The film's transitions are extraordinary, Campillo changing tone via a series of disco dance scenes, his characters joyous under strobing lights, motes hanging in the air morphing into the virus under a microscope, the dancers melting off the dance floor into the next scene. For a film haunted by death, "BPM" is transcendentally joyous, its message on life a reflection of ACT-UP's positive slogans. His command of the music is equally potent, first a flute, then additional instruments anticipating the film's theme, Bronski Beat's 'Smalltown Boy,' which bursts onto the screen during its first Gay Pride celebration.
"BPM (Beats Per Minute)" is a masterpiece, an emotionally affecting epic. Campillo saves his most provocative moment for last, an astounding depiction of love, death and the fight for life.
Robin gives "BPM (Beats Per Minute)" a B+.
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