Film Review: BPM (Beats Per Minute)

The title refers to your heart rate, which should increase as you experience this moving and powerful portrait of a tragic yet inspired era.
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For those of us who lived through the fraught, terrifying and infinitely sad years of the initial scourge of AIDS, Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute) brings it back with a blistering vividness that is but one aspect of its greatness. How anyone managed to endure and survive this time when every single day brought yet more news of death and degradation—physical, mental, spiritual—was a kind of miracle, and so is the film, which possesses all the wondrous intellectual rigor of Campillo’s brilliant The Class, along with more sheer, pulsing heart than any film you will see this year. This cannily calibrated combination results in a portrait of an era so incisive and wide-ranging that it fully deserves the by now almost banal appellation of epic.

BPM zeroes in on the workings of the French chapter of the American-born ACT UP—the intense and committed activist group which reacted to governmental and pharmaceutical company indifference to a perishing generation of gay men with anger and shockingly uncompromising protest in the early 1990s. In the roiling, dissent-filled, ultimately triumphant meetings that form the dramatic spine of the film, certain characters come to the fore, like Nathan (Arnaud Valois), an HIV-negative newbie who faces contempt from the more established positive members of the chapter for his perceived naivete, not to mention annoying good health. Directly in his face, brimming with infuriated opposition, is Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a militant loose cannon, whose disruption of a recent, carefully organized and relatively peaceful protest has come under group fire. The imminence of his death makes further urgent his and similar others’ desire for more transparency about and access to the rumored, vitally needed drugs being developed and disseminated at, in their view, a literally deadly snail’s pace. A recurring theme becomes Sean’s impatience with the almost Martin Luther King-like protest tactics of the group’s leaders, Sophie (Adèle Haenel) and Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), in contrast to his more incendiary Malcolm X approach, a source of continual discord in the meetings.

All of this, intriguing, educational and deeply involving as it is, falls away in the face of the human story, specifically that of the burgeoning and then gorgeously flowering love between Nathan and Sean, like a lotus in the midst of a muddy, lethal mire. We see the hesitant initial bonding of these disparate but desperately lonely souls, starting with Nathan revealing his romantic past with a beautiful candor and obvious depth of soul that has you instantly understanding how the oh-so-different Sean could fall so hard for him. Then, as Sean’s condition inevitably worsens, it means hospital time for him with the attendant anguish and physical humiliation of a merciless disease. Although this demands a heart-rendingly rueful acceptance, the moment when Sean, every hope gone, has a weeping meltdown goes beyond visceral, preceded as it is by a visit from Nathan that triggers a mutually autoerotic sex scene so passionately intense and real it takes your breath away and ranks with one of cinema’s great moments of amour.

And then, as mortality encroaches ever closer, Campillo masterfully turns his movie into a fever dream, in which all of Sean’s past life and present torment seems to dissolve into the embracing, mysterious and possibly blood-filled eternal waters of the Seine, which, although only a river, seems to surround this dark vision of a Paris which has always surrounded him. It’s a stroke of watery genius to match and, I think, surpass anything in L’Atalante, that similarly ambivalent masterpiece of an urban love letter from another brilliant gay artist, Jean Vigo.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film which dealt so compellingly and authentically with the death of a loved one. Almost seeming to unfold in real time, we experience the initial trauma and tears of Sean’s passing and Nathan’s despair, then the arrival of Sean’s bereft but blessedly sensible mother (Saadia Bentaïeb, quietly inspired), dealing with the unwieldy dressing of the corpse, friends gathering and a memorial, during which the sneaking strains of a half-forgotten song creep onto the soundtrack. Music has never been used more effectively on film, for the tune reveals itself to be Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy,” the true gay anthem of the time, signaling the last of BPM’s many flashbacks, with the ACT UP crew joyously dancing their frustration and illnesses away just as they did so many times before—the real gay medicine.

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