For those who don’t remember the AIDS crisis, Robin Campillo’s imperfect BPM comes close to being the definitive AIDS epic. It’s a feat of vivid and inspired recollection. Set in the early 1990s, it recreates the fervor of those men and women who, following the example set in the United States by the group AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, formed a European equivalent, ACT-UP Paris. They put their passions into being unruly activists, defending the rights of people with AIDS by demanding public recognition of the crisis, insisting on government responsibility and greater medical industry involvement.
But Campillo’s film does more than argue trendy political “resistance.” It is also a romance about the activist past. While following the protestors’ agenda (based partly on Campillo’s own experiences), the movie becomes increasingly personal. Like the classic innovations of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance and Altman’s Nashville, its accordion-like narrative expands and contracts—from group meetings (about tactical demonstrations and developing medical treatments from Protease inhibitors to DDC and AZT ) and protests into intimate scenes and then back into public spectacle).
Campillo and cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie (Wild Reeds) attempt pacing scenes to the urgent, sensuality of disco rhythms, as per the title (also the normal human heart rate). There’s are poetic transitions like the stunning symbolic transformation of the Seine to mark the era’s lifeblood. This multi-character story is the most ambitious, modern-day queer epic since Patrice Chereau’s Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (1999). Campillo brings back the tragic, emotional past so that it teaches about that age with contemporary immediacy.
The advances made in gay social life since the AIDS crisis began are evident in Campillo’s unique recall. His multicultural, male and female cast, seem startlingly youthful. Endangered angels, their innocence and optimism make the plague’s disaster all the more devastating—it looks like it could be happening today. This urgency points to Campillo’s particular filmmaking gift. As in the 2015 Eastern Boys, he observes modern social crisis in which the political is also personal.
If there is a key scene in BPM, it’s between Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), a queeny fireplug and tall, quiet Nathan (Arnaud Valois). The instant attraction of these opposites leads to some fumbling about condoms, then they reveal themselves. Campillo elegantly edits their first physical exploration into Sean’s memory of his initiation—and infection—at age 16. This sustained intimacy dramatizes that AIDS era maxim “When you sleep with one person you also sleep with everyone they’ve slept with.”
BPM recognizes a new kind of camaraderie among people sharing the same catastrophe as they struggle towards enlightenment and self-sufficiency. In the ACT-UP meetings, different perspectives and ideas clash. These are contrasted to disco scenes depicting a desperate need for release. The young faces are strikingly individual: zealous Sophie (Adele Hanael), brainy Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), and gentle history student Jeremie (Ariel Borenstein) look like Millennials which seems to hasten their dilemma. History becomes our story.
Previous AIDS movies were so caught up in their own serious commitment that they feel like period pieces. Ryan Murphy’s The Normal Heart lacked the skill to rise above Larry Kramer’s anger and Mike Nichols’ Angels in America had such “prestige movie” airs it exposed the worst, smart-ass aspects of Tony Kushner’s overinflated writing; it made his search for visionary-spiritual significance feel abstract. But Campillo’s emphasis on lengthy observation and emotional interplay is convincingly naturalistic. The world falls away as Nathan and Sean comment on a gathering of disparate comrades and Nathan confesses a failure of nerve about his first lover. A secular wake surprisingly uncovers the inherent humanism of social allegiance. Campillo intercuts news footage of ACT-UP church disruptions but omits the biased sermonizing that made the 2012 doc How to Survive a Plague insensitive.
BPM never makes the mistake of alienating a particular character or segment of the audience. (“You can’t split responsibility,” Sean warns against careless hook-ups). Campillo’s even-handedness (including a swipe at the intellectualized homophobia of philosopher Jean Baudrillard) is worthy of an epic about mankind forced to face mortality without fairness or warning. When Thibault tells Sean “We don’t like each other but we’re friends,” it prepares for the film’s most shattering, moving sequence.
Although Campillo’s memory of the epidemic borrows from American social activism, it consistently avoids political bias and sentimentality as American filmmakers seem unable to do. Even when its disco sequences drift into aimless respite, BPM is French cinematic rationalism at its most effective. A film that encourages queers to have enemies would be counterproductive. BPM transcends modern queer politics.