There’s a generation of gay men filled with ghosts. Men who populated clubs and bars; men you took home to bed, or a glory hole; men you saw in the office, the theater, a park, a pier, a ball, a dance floor, or a sauna. Men who danced and loved and fucked. Men whose absence has left a void. Robin Campillo’s new film, BPM (Beats Per Minute), drawn from the director’s time with ACT UP Paris in the early ’90s, is a period piece of sorts, but it’s also a summoning of spirits.
One of them is Campillo’s first love, Arnaud, a man he met in the south of France when he was 19, right before the epidemic. In the film, he tells the story through Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a recent recruit at ACT UP, who tells his new lover, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), about the first love he lost touch with after the AIDS epidemic hit. (“I stopped fucking instantly,” he tells Sean.) Years later, he ran into Arnaud, who had lost a lot of weight and had trouble walking. He never asked about his health, but he knew. “All these persons are ghosts to me,” said the French writer-director. “I was 20 at the beginning of the epidemic in ’82 in France. I was going back to the closet, mostly. I thought I was going to die. It was a kind of denial.”
ACT UP woke him up. The AIDS-advocacy organization, started in a fit of rage by Larry Kramer and a group of activists in New York City in 1987, staged historic interventions in politics, media, medicine, and the culture at large. The Paris offshoot began a couple years later in June of 1989, when a group of activists staged a “die-in”: They laid down on the street in silence wearing T-shirts that read “Silence=Death.” “I found the militants I was seeing in the street sexy because their bodies were stronger than mine, even if they were HIV-positive. When you were in this group, there was such jubilation,” said Campillo. “I started to breath again.”
BPM follows ACT UP mostly through eyes of its young lovers, Nathan and Sean. When the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, it left the audience of journalists speechless and weeping. It eventually won the Grand Prix award (or second place) in a split decision that had jury member Pedro Almodóvar in tears, because it didn’t take the top prize. More than any other AIDS drama, BPM captures the resistant, collective spirit that formed during the crisis that left thousands dead and dying. Movies like Philadelphia, Dallas Buyers Club, Precious, Angels in America, and Les Nuits Fauves (Savage Nights) invariably focus on individuals. Even the adaptation of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart centers on its phlegmatic leader, and Dustin Lance Black’s ABC mini-series When We Rise is too concerned with linear narratives to capture the fugitive elements of queer history. (Perhaps the best film about ACT UP previously was the documentary United in Anger.) BPM, meanwhile, is as much a love letter to ACT UP as it is a love story between Nathan and Sean. (In many ways, those two things are one and the same.) The film is enamored with the mess of activism, its exigencies, delays, and processes, and the intense and complex relationships that come out of it. You might not like someone — you could hate them and scream at them in a meeting — but you would still consider them your brother- and sister-in-arms, because in this fight, you only had one other.
What Campillo accomplishes with BPM isn’t simply a historical representation of ACT UP, but what he calls a “sensual genealogy, an emotional genealogy of this epidemic.” The personal is political is sexual. It’s as much about how we relate and empathize with one another as it is about institutional policies. The artist and writer Gregg Bordowitz once described the group’s early years in New York as a “bazaar of desires.” “There is all kinds of cruising going on on the sides, and eye catching, and chattiness. There was an energy in the group that was amazing, because it was filled with people who had ideas, filled with people who had energies, filled with a kind of erotic energy,” Bordowitz said in an oral history of ACT UP. “So it was amazing that anything got done. An enormous amount got done.”
It isn’t until a third of the way in that BPM’s beating heart emerges: the relationship between the new recruit, Nathan (Valois) and veteran activist Sean (the Argentine-born Biscayart). Nathan is HIV-negative. He’s tall and healthy and elicits wolf whistles when he introduces himself at the first meeting. He has the charming naïveté of someone who has not been in the trenches, but he’s enchanted with ACT UP. Sean is HIV-positive. He is relentless, angry, and dying, and he will give his body to the movement because there is nothing left to lose. He embodies the paradox of ACT UP: that those closest to death could be so ferociously full of life.
In person, the actors mirror their characters. Valois hangs over Biscayart at a muscular six-foot-two, with an open face that exudes generosity. Biscayart is physically small, but intense, with a concentrated gaze. Biscayart is the more seasoned actor, whereas this is Valois’s first role since he took a hiatus over six years ago to study Thai massage, among other things. Biscayart is prone to go on arias about his character, his craft, and the state of the world, whereas Valois is content to sit back and observe. Still, the two are in sync, and often finish each other’s thoughts. “I remember he was very precise, very elegant, and very tall,” Biscayart said of first meeting Valois. “Oh, and very big. I was just like, I can’t. I can’t do your size. I can’t take you in. I don’t know how to do that.” “I had to lose a bit of muscle before the shooting,” Valois adds, laughing.
While Biscayart secured the role of Sean early on, Campillo hesitated to give the part to Valois outright. “Poor Arnaud,” said Campillo. “I did like 20 tests with all the characters. He was amazing. At the same time I was thinking, He’s very, very handsome. That’s a problem.” Valois came in to test with different actors for weeks. “At one point I said, ‘Okay, stop. This is insane,’” said Valois. He decided to withdraw himself from the process — at which point, Campillo called him up and told him he had the part.
Instead of exerting as much directorial control as he did in his earlier work, like Les Revenants, Campillo decided to let the chemistry between the actors dictate the narrative. “I wanted to be invaded by others,” Campillo said. “I wanted that feeling of being lost, not being in a normal fiction, where every character is very well-exposed. To be lost, like in the flow of a river.” BPM opens on a wide, impassioned chorus of activists debating the finer points of a direct action they just did. There’s the reluctant president, Thibault (Antoine Reinartz); the strategist, Sophie (Adèle Haenel); Eva with the quick tongue (Aloïse Sauvage); the supportive ally, Hélène (Catherine Vinatier), and her hemophiliac teenage son, Marco (Théophile Ray); and on and on. “It’s like a [choir] at the opera. All the people are talking all the time,” said Campillo. “Bubbling. Chattering.”
Early on, Valois and Biscayart had an audition together where they improvised a scene so Campillo could see their chemistry. The broad parameter for the scenario was that their characters had just done their first direct action against a pharmaceutical company and were taking a walk on the street, getting to know each other. Then they went up to the casting director’s apartment, where they talked about HIV and the first time they had ever had sex — conversations that occur in the film when the characters first have sex together. “I told them [they would] only be topless, because I wanted to see them touch skin. The contact of your skin is very important,” said Campillo. “That led [them] to improvise, and that was very interesting because I really saw then that maybe Nathan is more in love with Sean than the opposite. I saw that, and I loved that.”
Those ideas, and the dialogue they’d improvised, found their way into the script, while Campillo thought of new lines while watching them together. “I could feel that even during the audition process there was a real work we were developing, and I was like, whoa. It doesn’t really feel like we’re just acting, it feels like we’re really creating something,” said Biscayart. “You’re not forcing things. You’re not just putting on the coat of acting skills. There was something very human.”
During shooting, Biscayart and Valois became an inseparable unit and developed what Campillo called “a sensual pact” with one another. “We would just spend all day long together,” Biscayart recalled. “The dynamic is something you create when you’re an actor and you have to play with somebody. It can dissolve or turn into something else afterwards.” He says that their relationship in real life isn’t the same, but that, like their characters, it could exist as a moment inside of this highly compressed time and space. “Maybe I was in love with him during the shooting,” he said. “It’s not static. it’s not something that’s steady.”
Their sex scenes together are an extension of BPM’s political sensibilities: They are immediate, intimate, familiar. As with the ACT UP meetings, there’s a naturalist impulse, with flecks of the surreal. Sean and Nathan have sex the way you almost never see gay men have sex onscreen. They negotiate condom usage (Sean finds prophylactics a turn-on and requires it even during oral sex); they use lube; there’s cum, tissues, and laughter. Physical intimacy gives way to emotional intimacy; sex is threaded with memories of family. Sean tells Nathan how he became positive, which happened when he had sex for the first time with his math teacher. As he’s telling the story, the camera shifts, and the teacher appears behind him; suddenly, Sean is a teenager again. “I love this idea that it become like a threesome, because I always think when I’m having sex I’m remembering other persons I’ve had sex with,” said Campillo.
The body takes up a central role in BPM, both in its its resilience and fragility. Later in the film, Sean is hospitalized — his Kaposi sarcoma has spread, and his T-cell count is dangerously low. Biscayart only weighs 54 kilograms (119 pounds) normally, but he went on a diet to lose more weight over the course of the shoot to mimic the progression of the illness. By the time his character enters the hospital, he had lost 7 kilograms (a little over 15 pounds), and his large eyes take on a rabid, spectral quality. “I would empty myself in a well as the character would empty himself,” he said. “It was like the same emptying process towards death, like a withering thing. Of course I was very dizzy, dazed, and then at some points I was very accurate in my feelings. I remember getting into the hospital bed and just wanting to disappear, die, cry. It was very intense.”
One of the most poignant moments between them happens in the hospital room. Sean tells Nathan that he misses him, and it’s clear the two have not had sex in a while. Nathan comes over and starts to caress him, and at first it’s not clear if it’s therapeutic or erotic; what it is, simply, is sex as a form of caregiving. Afterwards, Nathan cradles Sean in his arms, like the Pietà. “It’s like a seance,” said Campillo. “Sex is like a psychic seance, and cinema is like a seance. It’s the same thing. The same substance.”
Campillo still tries to find his first boyfriend online, the one Nathan tells Sean about. He’ll type his name into search bars, even though they met during a time well before we began digitizing ourselves on the internet. “Sometimes I go through Facebook, because I think I’m going to find him back. Of course there’s nothing,” Campillo said. “Nothing at all about him.”
Undeterred, Campillo reached out to an old friend who knew him. She still had some old photographs that she sent to Campillo by both mail and email. The postal service lost the physical photographs, so the only images left are the ones she scanned. They were the only photos she had, and Campillo put them, and his name, into BPM: At that first meeting, the activists pass out a newsletter letting the members know that one of their own had died, and that his name was Alain Isnard.
Before the epidemic began, another of Campillo’s lovers read him a line from Marguerite Duras’s L’Homme Atlantique that still unsettles him: “When you left, came your absence.” “This sentence is like [a] curse,” said Campillo. “It’s so relevant because I still feel the absence of some people. That absence became a reality.”