Something is in the air from the start of BPM: Beats Per Minute. It’s immediately visible in the air, for those patient and attentive enough to notice it, and vanished once it loses peoples’ attentions. The particles of dust, sweat and mist that director Robin Campillo intimately pulls into the foreground repeatedly throughout BPM sum up one of the most frustrating things about fighting the AIDS epidemic: convincing people this immediate, tangible threat exists, and what’s more, that the lives it threatens are sincerely worth saving. Everyone feels driven to prove it as passionately as possible with every second of BPM, screaming, dancing, living brashly and broadly, for fear that they don’t have a future to wait for.
What makes Campillo’s latest – following up the elaborate thriller tension of his breakout, Eastern Boys – such a constantly vivid experience, full of immense feeling and complex socio-political discussion, is also what makes it such an engagingly contentious procedural narrative. Centered on the Paris chapter of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) through the early 1990s, and significantly based on Campillo’s own experiences in the activist organization, there are plenty of singularly focused, dazzling set-pieces of defiance, making a necessary spectacle of the endangered lives they’re fighting for. Activists rush into exploitative pharmaceutical companies with fake blood, making as righteously red a mess as possible before security comes to violently take people fighting for their lives.
Campillo’s never under any illusions of harmonious resistance, though, when it comes to the combative opinions which fire amongst one another within the ACT UP organization. Peaceful demonstrations are obviously more easily defended for their digestible approach to activism, but even at their least considered, there’s validity to the more punctuated, lightly violent actions advocated by Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), one of the more reasonably hot-blooded ACT UP members. If newer member Nathan (Arnaud Valois) is the perspective leading us into the organization, Sean is the pulsating, relentlessly active emotional core validating the rage that fuels so much of the movement. As the two spark an instinctive, then deeply personal relationship, the film’s focus splits between the large-scale actions of ACT UP and the intimate, unsettled romantic drama of inevitably doomed lovers.
As desperate as the stakes are, Campillo never lets BPM become a dour, solely upsetting experience, the ‘beats’ of its title representing and conflating both physical and musical definitions. The activism at its heart is ecstatic and sexy, not letting fear of death and the mounting, heartbreaking body toll of dear friends and lovers totally demoralize them. Dance club scenes balance the ecstasy of the moment with the microscopic spectacle of T-cells dying. High school invasions provoke as much indignance and outrage from some teachers as they do patience and understanding from others, and it’s amusingly unclear which class of students were more convinced.
But there’s a reason there’s so much anger attached to ACT UP’s AIDS activism, a task whose surging, searing emotion and repose of positivity feels occasionally at odds with the life-or-death desperation of HIV-positive members like Sean. A devastating turning point in the film’s focus and narrative is when Sean, faced with the opportunity of lashing out at the executives of Melton Pharmaceutical – as close as BPM gets to a specific, callously desensitized villain – rests in stunned, debilitated silence. It’s the key indicator that we’re about to shift gears fully from the macro envelopment of activism to the devastating intimacy of Sean’s depreciating condition.
Sean’s partner and eventual caregiver Nathan may not be the most vivid entry point for BPM, but as a conduit for Campillo’s own experiences with a dying lover, he’s a necessary one. He lends so much more dense characterization for Biscayart to chew into, dissecting the delicate shifts from spontaneity and enthusiasm to somber, somewhat bleak reflection. How does it feel to gradually become the emotional fuel of a movement, and no longer even a member of it. The realization of mortality and finality lends the most strenuous of hospital hand-jobs an aching, ravishing beauty, as we’re seeing someone come to terms with their diminished role in peoples’ lives.
Much of Campillo’s work is maintaining the galvanizing emotional progression of ACT UP’s political and societal pursuits, but he never loses specificity amidst the immense scope of the story he’s telling. He knows how to turn a simple, sparse beach trip into a grand visual and emotional composition about the necessity and futility of resistance. He can turn a procession of people repeatedly entering a room into the most profoundly emotional set-piece, never wavering in its ability to convey tragedy and loss. What makes BPM such a shattering, yet unique, experience is how it acknowledges and validates both the righteously positive and the furiously negative in the same moment. There’s no embrace of one without the bitter kick of the other.