In the Fight: Robin Campillo’s ‘BPM’ recalls AIDS activism in 1990s Paris

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There will not be a more powerful film this year than BPM, Robin Campillo’s passionate treatise on the early days in Paris of ACT UP, the activist group originated by a group of gay New Yorkers in response to government and pharmaceutical company indifference to a plague which was decimating their community.

With electrifying immediacy and ferocious intelligence, Campillo not only recreates the feverish meetings which often turned combative over starkly differing agendas, but limns a beautiful and heartbreaking love story between Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who is in the advanced stages of the disease, and Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a newcomer to the group with an equally deep commitment, even though he’s HIV-negative and much less flamboyant than his fiery lover.

Film Journal International spoke to the director by phone from Paris.

Robin Campillo: I had first heard about AIDS in 1982 as a young gay guy, and was so afraid of it. I was just starting film school to become a director with Laurent Cantet, with whom I made The Class, but I just lost the will to do cinema. It seemed so useless to me in the face of this disease.

I went to an ACT UP Paris meeting ten years later. By then, we were all tired of this silence about AIDS for a decade. I joined the group, and we flash-forward to about seven years ago, when I was directing East End Boys and I was talking with my producer, who had been in ACT UP with me. I had asked him if I could please have some more days of shooting and he was gloating because he didn’t want to give them to me.

I said, “You owe them to me,” and he said, “I don’t owe you anything.” I said, “Yes, you do, because I was the one who dressed your dead boyfriend for his funeral when you couldn’t do it [a scene that is in BPM].”

Actually, I had tried to write an AIDS film twelve years ago. My draft didn’t deal with ACT UP but with a guy who had HIV and tried to stop his treatment, but the script didn’t feel true. I realized that I didn’t want to make a film about a man who gets infected that talks about loneliness. I wanted to address a more positive moment in my life when we started to be good actors in 1987-89, as well as activists with the group.

Film Journal International: Your two lead actors were so extraordinary, and wonderful contrasts. For me, the gold standard for movie death scenes has always been Garbo in Camille, but at the opening-night party for the film here in New York, I was glad to tell Nahuel that he surpassed her. How did you find them?

RC: Nahuel was actually the easiest actor to find. My casting director mentioned him to me, saying that he was Argentinian. I like to work with foreign actors—it’s good to have a mix there, it adds richness. So I met him in a café in Paris where we had coffee and I immediately liked his personality.

When I looked at his screen test, I loved the way he acted during the meeting scenes. That was a major point for me, because I was afraid all those debates would be dull. But he was so funny and theatrical, keeping a kind of distance from the more militant members, and also influenced by his private life and personal health, a very colorful way of embodying this character.

In all, the preparation for the film took nine months, because it was very important to have the right people for the roles. For me, most of the time the actors are more important than the fictional characters I write. I really do want my characters to become the actors, not the other way around.

We had to find just the right connection between Sean and Nathan, so we did a lot of tests for the other actor. I liked Arnaud Valois because he was an actor a few years ago with a few films, but he was a little upset with the business. He felt he had been doing a lot of tests but there was never a job at the end of the casting process.

At first I thought he was too handsome for the part, and he was still a little bit cross about cinema. But because he was interested in the subject, he agreed to two tests, and then we did a lot more, three months with different guys and girls. He finally told my casting director, “That’s enough. I’m going home.” So we called him and said he had the part. 

FJI: You also used Adèle Haenel, as a staunch activist, who is much more well known than the rest of your cast. She’s so talented, and that beautiful face of hers was like a bonus in a heavy film. I called her “Joan of Arc in a sweater.”

RC: I love this actress, who is someone very special right now in France. I wanted her to be a little bit butch, but at the same time she has this luscious face of a 1950s pinup. I knew her through a friend of mine—another director—and we had dinner a few times. She told me that she would like to work with me, but I was afraid that because she is more famous, there would be some difference or distance from the other actors.

But she really liked the collective experience and that’s why I chose her. She is also quite funny and that was very important. She brought that to the early scenes and is incredible to work with, a very thinking actress. I told her, “In this film, you won’t have  makeup, you won’t have your hair done. You’ll have to do it all yourself,” and she accepted that she would not look perfect.

FJI: I fell madly in love with the music, so subtle yet so sensuous and haunting. Usually music is so intrusive in movies, nudging emotional responses from you, but yours was perfect.

RC: Arnaud Rebotini did my previous film, and he is most interesting. He knows all about electronic music and hard rock. He was a DJ for many years, a straight guy, but he worked in gay clubs as well, of course. He had a very good culture of what music was going on in 1992-94, which I didn’t know, personally. In his studio he has a lot of old instruments, like zithers, and created a lot of music that was very early 1990s.

So we worked together and he was amazing, using those 120 beats per minute of the heart that is our title. The music was so important to us at that time: It was the club kind of party music, but at the same time it had a kind of melancholy. For me, it was the soundtrack of the epidemic. I agree with you—I’m always a little bit embarrassed by music in film when it’s too obvious.

FJI: The music really peaks when you hear the familiar strains of Jimmy Sommerville of Bronski Beat singing “Smalltown Boy.” Chills went down my spine, for I so remember that song as theanthem of the gay community at that scary time.

RC: Yes! Jimmy Sommerville was a very good friend of ACT UP Paris, and gave a concert to raise money. I told him that I would like him to do this concert in the film, but he refused as he didn’t want to be filmed. Instead, he gave us the original track of the music, which was so interesting. We were able to do a remix of the ’90s style, and at the same time during the editing we stripped the track so there was only his voice.

I loved the idea that he was almost there with Nathan when he is on his own, and there was a connection. His voice is connected to the dream of the bridge over the Seine which becomes filled with blood connected to love and death.

FJI: AIDS aside, no film has ever dealt with death in the way you have—both ruthlessly comprehensive and completely authentic. It’s such a complex event, filled with so many conflicting emotions, including, surprisingly, laughter, which you address so wonderfully,

RC: We gay men were very distant with ourselves at the time. We tried to feel very sorry and down but, like you say, you are in a different state, not in your normal state, so sometimes it can be funny trying to reconnect to life. You are so sad with what is going on, but at the same time there are all these not-so-obvious facts like when someone dies, the body stays there for a long time. You have to cope with that, and after a time nobody goes to see it, because the guy is dead anyway.

FJI: And you have Nathan being consoled by the guy in the group whom Sean always differed with and hated, and even going to bed with him. And it might shock some, but it shouldn’t, because life must go on, especially for very vibrant, young, gay and alive men.

RC: It’s a friendly fuck, and also a way of not leaving the mourning lover alone. It was something that happened all the time, because in ACT UP people had a lot of sex. There was lots of sexual tension in the group, even between gays and lesbians. We were very connected to each other, but for some of the actors it wasn’t so easy or natural. One guy was actually crying, but it wasn’t like Nathan was cheating on Sean or even thinking of it.