Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute) starts with a bang. A group of protesters storm a stage and commandeer the microphone. This mystifies the speaker, stunned at having so suddenly lost control of his event. But things go a little screwy; one of the protesters mishears a call to action, and throws a balloon filled with fake blood at the speaker’s face. In the ensuing chaos, two other of the protesters take out handcuffs and chain the now blood-spattered speaker to a metal rail. Oh dear, you think. This got quite out of hand!
This is ACT UP Paris, a group of nonviolent protesters who, in the early 1990s, sought to increase awareness of the AIDS epidemic. Back at their weekly meeting, they examine what went wrong and how to improve their protests. These passages give us insight into how the organisation works: There is no ‘leader’ in the normal sense; everything is decided by consensus. No debates outside the hall. And the group discourages boos or claps, because this drowns out discourse; instead, members hiss to disapprove, and snap their fingers to approve. (This calls to mind some optics of the Occupy Wall Street movement.) Whether you’re sympathetic to nonviolent protests such as these or not, it’s fascinating seeing the inner workings of such an organisation.
There are more protests. ACT UP storms inside a pharmaceutical company to demand they release trial information for their new drug. They crash high school classes to inform the students about condoms and safe sex. They place stickers into offending books warning potential readers of homophobic content.
You can definitely make comparisons to current collective action. Campillo never pushes his associations, but some of his imagery directly parallels what we see today of Black Lives Matter, or the recent Occupy movement. This front half of BPM works best, as Campillo stages these protests, ostensibly happening nearly thirty years ago, in a way that feels excitingly immediate.
But after about an hour, Campillo switches his focus. We finally get some background information on two of ACT UP’s members, Nathan and Sean (Arnaud Valois and Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), as they begin a relationship. At first, I was a little annoyed that these two characters were getting together, because it seemed so arbitrary. But Nathan gets a lovely monologue about the first man he ever fell in love with, and how he wasn’t able to be in the hospital with him as the man’s disease consumed him. Since Sean has AIDS, and is clearly beginning the process of dying himself, it makes sense that Nathan would gravitate towards him; their relationship is a kind of atonement for Nathan after his incomplete first love.
Intellectually, I could see what Campillo was doing. People make up movements, and these real people have active (and probably dire) personal investments in these movements. It’s not a hobby—it’s a very literal matter of life and death So Campillo wants to show us one of the people afflicted with AIDS, and follow the disease to its (then) inevitable conclusion, providing context for the necessity of ACT UP’s actions. But Sean’s illness takes up pretty much the entire second half of his film, which is a long time for a film to go on after playing its thematic hand.
Part of my problem is that I didn’t really buy Sean as a character. Not that he’s unrealistic—we all know people whose entire sense of identity comes from their minority status, and pretty much nothing else. (Really, no character in this movie has an identity outside of the group.) But I don’t think that Sean, as presented by Campillo and Biscayart, is even that deep. He’s a (self-described) queen, he’s aggressively political, and he’s sick, so he’s basically ACT UP in human form. And in the context of BPM, he’s the sacrificial lamb that Campillo offers up to the altar of his theme: Movements Are People.
Since Sean never read to me as a complete character, watching him die for (what felt like more than) an hour didn’t give me the overwhelming emotional experience that it seems many other people had. If I’m being completely honest, I was bored. Campillo’s shaky-cam, documentary-like, you-are-there aesthetic worked swimmingly in the first half of BPM, to depict ACT UP’s political antics. But when used to watch someone very slowly die, it made the proceedings feel interminable. You may argue that Campillo tries to make a point about the agony of death, but that didn’t stop me from feeling like Elaine watching The English Patient.
I really hope I’m not coming across as some emotionless android—I’m really not. (Honest! I swear! Watch E.T. with me, and you’ll see!) There is an inherent power in watching a fellow human being die, naturally. But when it takes so long, and it’s a character you’re not invested in, it can seem a bit of a footslog. I also had the niggling sense that I’d seen all this before—imagine the last reel of Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia expanded to half an entire feature. By the final scene, I expected Jeb Bush to wander into my theatre and meekly implore, ‘Please cry.’
If you find the subject matter of BPM inherently interesting, or you have a personal stake in it, (or you’re simply easily prone to tears,) then the second half of BPM may play better for you than it did for me. I thought the first half was pretty fantastic, and came closest to making Campillo’s film resonate in our current world climate. But switching his focus to the personal lives of barely drawn characters fatally damaged the film’s momentum, and left me not-so-patiently waiting for the credits to roll.