Acclaimed writer/director Robin Campillo returns with BPM (Beats Per Minute), an incendiary and challenging film about the Act Up AIDS protest movement in France in the nineties.
This might sound like a bleak prospect, but Campillo superbly captures the intelligence, heart, and passion of these protesters. In other hands, the group’s regular debates about how to effect change could be boring, but the sharp script and tremendous performances make this feel like a lived experience, not a written treatise.
The ensemble cast are brilliant, with Biscayart, Valois, Haenel and Reinartz deserving particular praise. The most striking thing about them is how their overwhelmingly political struggle never feels like a manifesto – their HIV+ diagnoses and the activism that follows are just reality for them. It makes for naturalistic but powerful performances that slowly but surely let you see how AIDS and the French government’s slow response to it ruined countless lives.
Campillo’s direction is strongest in the opening half of the film, where he focuses on the spirited efforts of Act Up to pressure politicians and drug companies. They’re fighting a war against this disease, and the establishment is simply a bureaucratic obstacle which they challenge with spectacle. AIDS might be a death sentence for so many of these young men and women, but it doesn’t stop them living.
Oddly, when the film narrows focus to its most charismatic character, Sean (Biscayart), it begins to flag. The collective dynamics in the group are the most exciting feature, so as great as Biscayart is, when he takes centre stage something feels lost.
The film ends bleakly, which is the natural expectation for anything dealing with AIDS, but it’s a disappointing way to go. Campillo captures something electrifying about a movement as urgent as this, combining party and protest to offer hope in the darkest of times.
CAST: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adèle Haenel, Antoine Reinartz
DIRECTOR: Robin Campillo
WRITER: Robin Campillo
SYNOPSIS: Early 1990s. With AIDS having already claimed countless lives for nearly ten years, Act up-Paris activists multiply actions to fight general indifference. Nathan, a newcomer to the group, has his world shaken up by Sean, a radical militant, who throws his last bits of strength into the struggle.