The title of the stark French AIDS-crisis drama BPM stands for “beats per minute,” which can evoke a heartbeat or a discotheque, both of which figure in the film. What you also might think of is a clock ticking down, as the main characters — virtually all of them HIV-positive — rage against the dying of the light. Directed and co-written (with Philippe Mangeot) by the Morocco-born Robin Campillo, the film takes place in 1989 and centers on the Paris branch of ACT UP, whose members devise stunts to call attention to government’s and pharmaceutical companies’ foot-dragging in the fight against a near-genocidal epidemic. Along with that rage is a coming-together that has resonated through the intervening decades.
The movie opens with a stunt, an onstage assault on a health secretary who, at least on a surface level, appears to be doing his best. That’s one of the most unsettling aspects of BPM: At first glance, the “villains” don’t seem villainous, while the “heroes” can be frightening. The health secretary attempts to engage the protesters in conversation, only to be smashed in the face with a fake-blood balloon and handcuffed to a railing. Later, the group defaces a drug-company office, hissing at a doctor who says he feels their pain. ACT UP is, after all, about acting up, being rude and inappropriate. Looking back, we know a drug cocktail would eventually be concocted that keeps people alive a long time. But no one knew it then. All they knew was … nothing, really. Rumors of drug trials. The occasional supportive word from a mayor or governor or president — though not, of course, in the U.S. under Reagan and not in New York, where the closeted Ed Koch’s fear of aligning himself with gays kept AIDS off the political agenda. All the members of ACT UP know is that friends and lovers are sprouting lesions, weakening, and dying in agony.
You understand those stakes when Campillo depicts ACT UP meetings in a vertical classroom, where members aren’t allowed to clap or cheer — only to use finger snaps to signal their agreement or approval. It’s an eerie sound, more haunting than applause, because those snaps don’t reverberate. They’re more urgent than handclaps, but in a void. The group’s leader, Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), has the task of entertaining wildly disparate ideas for future demonstrations and slogans. He must mediate between people who want more violence and people who want less. He also has to reach out to drug companies for reports of trials while making sure no one in the group mistakes him for a diplomat. His evident second-in-command, Sophie (Adèle Haenel), is generally on the side of the chaos-makers. Against this are segments of the Paris gay community that think ACT UP is made up of a bunch of killjoy malcontents.
The first half of BPM is chill, impersonal, doubtlessly intentional given Campillo’s focus on the collective rather than the individual. But a central pair emerges. Nahuel Perez Biscayart and Arnaud Valois are Sean and Nathan, whose love affair interrupts the flow of meetings and demonstrations. Sean became infected at 16, via his first encounter, and will probably die before 20. He’s among the fiercest of ACT UP’s members, the one who feels the need to do damage most insistently. It’s Nathan who listens to him, tempers him (to a point), and gives him the kind of love he never had. Campillo isn’t as resourceful in their bedroom scenes. His camera loiters and the action is generalized — he loses the dramatic beat. But we’re with the movie by this point. And we’re hungry for a sense of intimacy in a world of public declarations.
The most curious elements of BPM are its act-ending disco interludes — streaky, throbbing, sometimes intercut with microscopic views of cells. My guess is that they’re there as a reminder that the AIDS crisis was a cruel, shattering end to an age of abandon (and promiscuity), one that marked gays’ public declaration of independence from having to hide in the shadows for so long. To borrow the title of another movie, these were the true last days of disco.
BPM is vital for the history it depicts, but it’s also important in the here and now, as a testament to public action — even messy, not-always-effective public action. The characters look around and see their society functioning smoothly, as if there wasn’t a plague in its midst. Comparisons to the present are always dangerous, but let’s live dangerously: The very ecosystem is collapsing around us, with omens coming faster and faster of the catastrophe to come. We should watch BPM and ask, “How disruptive are we willing to be?”