Writer/director Robin Campillo’s latest film, BPM, offers a heartfelt look at the defiant young activists who fought to end the AIDS pandemic during the 90’s. Between the 140-minute run time and Campillo’s naturalistic style, BPM will feel too rudderless for some, but there’s a touching love story waiting for those willing to stick it out. Anchored by an outstanding performance by Argentinian actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, BPM is a powerful film that lingered on my mind long after the final credits.
Our doorway into BPM’s world is the French branch of the advocacy/protest group ACT UP. Founded in the late 80’s, Act Up is an international organization with the goal of improving the lives of people with AIDS and preventing the spread of the pandemic. Over the course of the film, we see ACT UP go to public schools to promote safe sex, disrupt political debates, and force their way into and vandalize a pharmaceutical company. It’s in the ACT UP meetings where we meet BPM’s large cast of characters and we learn about them by watching them argue, enlighten, and debate each other.
There’s one personality that stands out from the crowd: Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), an abrasive and charismatic young man that never bites his tongue. Sean has a way of drawing in all the attention in a room, and it’s not long before he pairs off with a newcomer to the group named Nathan (Arnaud Valois). Sean’s fiery disposition is tempered by Nathan’s calm presence and their slowly blossoming romance becomes the film’s emotional backbone. Unlike Nathan, Sean is HIV positive, and this difference affects each man’s outlook on life as they progress through the film.
Early on, BPM comes off more like a series of vignettes than a traditional film. We’re introduced to a large cast of characters who shout at, argue and joke with one another in a manner closer to a townhall debate than cinematic dialogue. Rather than tracking plot points or character arcs, the viewer is asked to sit back, relax, and experience each moment as though we were a fly on the wall.
BPM’s first half radiates at the same frequency as a Richard Linklater hangout movie. There is a vibrancy, charisma, and charm beaming off of all the colourful personalities every second they’re onscreen. It’s fun watching the group whether they’re out marching on the streets, ribbing each other on the train, or at the club hitting the dance floor. It feels all the more tragic during the second half of the film as we watch the life drain from their young bodies as they grow sicker and die. And this new perspective casts ACT UP’s activism in a new light.
There are instances early on where we see peaceful protests escalate into acts of physical aggression. In one instance, a target has blood hurled into his face before ACT UP handcuffs him to a stage. The stunt is divisive amongst ACT UP members with some thinking it crossed a line. But in the film’s second half, after realizing how little time these young men and women have, I’m not so quick to judge the ACT UP members who take a militant stance.
We all understand the way that HIV, cancer, and alcoholism ravage society. We intrinsically know that they tear families apart every single day. But no matter how many grim statistics people throw at us, they remain abstractions until we’re forced to personally confront them. Movies may be make believe but the feelings they evoke from us are real, and films like BPM have the power to create empathy. In this case, Campillo spends two hours connecting us to his characters’ struggle and the last half hour ripping out our hearts. By the time I finished watching BPM, I didn’t just understand ACT UP’s struggle, I was moved by it.
- Release Date: 9/13/2017