Following one of Cannes’s infamously early 8:30 a.m. press screenings, you’ll usually see small groups of journalists gathering in the theater lobby, parsing out their hot takes on what they’ve just seen. But at the end of last Saturday’s morning screening of the French film 120 Battements Par Minute (120 Beats Per Minute), set during the battle between dying HIV-positive youth and pharmaceutical companies in early-1990s Paris, there was no talking, just the sounds of weeping, then applause, then devastated silence as the press corps filed toward the exit. A gay male colleague had sat beside me as we’d both wiped away tears. We looked at each other, without a word, and hugged.
The third film from Moroccan-born French screenwriter turned director Robin Campillo (known in arthouse circles for 2013’s Eastern Boys, about a young male Ukrainian prostitute who robs an older man, and for writing Laurent Cantet’s The Class, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2008), BPM came into the festival with little advance fanfare, next to new works from Sofia Coppola, Michael Haneke, Yórgos Lánthimos, and Lynne Ramsay. And maybe it’s precisely because so few of us saw it coming that its emotional wallop has been so lasting. In a canon of AIDS movies that often seem to focus on making the disease palatable for the mainstream — Tom Hanks as the everyman wasting away in Philadelphia; the heroics of a straight, white, HIV-positive guy who is literally a cowboy in Dallas Buyers Club — BPM is a unique, intimate portrait of the community from the inside, thrilling for its non-American perspective, and for its willingness to depict the erotic lives of a group of people who had been shunned by society and left to die, often for little other than daring to have sex. Critics have called it “heart-bursting” and “a vital new gay classic.” Even now, six days after its debut, BPM is still the title I hear mentioned again and again when people talk about what movie has moved them most.
Campillo begins backstage at a pharmaceutical conference, in the thick of a crowd of young people watching a man in a suit deliver “promising” statistics about HIV/AIDS research through a tiny opening in the curtain. In their hands are signs and what look like water balloons. Their bodies practically shake with anticipation. Someone signals “go” and they storm forward, shouting slogans about drugs and murder. Within seconds, one of those balloons, which was filled not with water but with something red and viscous, has smacked straight into the face of the speaker and we, as an audience, are confronted with our own discomfort seeing this man dripping in fake blood, marinating in his shame. Now the young people have taken over the microphone. They are, they say, members of the Paris branch of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) — the political action organization Larry Kramer founded in New York in the late 1980s, which believed brazen disruptions were necessary means to spur an indifferent Mitterrand administration and Big Pharma to speed up their release of life-saving treatments. Ten years since the crisis began, we learn, France is still seeing 6,000 new cases a year, twice that of the UK or Germany.
Both Campillo and his co-writer Philippe Mangeot were members of ACT UP 20 years ago, and this film feels in many ways like their way of finally unburdening themselves of what they saw, in tribute to the short, vibrant lives of friends who are no longer here. Our entry point to the group is handsome, eager newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois), who is attending his first weekly ACT UP meeting, and whose rare HIV-negative status makes him both the strongest and most vulnerable person in the room. Rapt wonder washes over his face as a heated debate erupts among members over what happened in the events of the opening scene, which turn out to have gone much further than what we saw: The group spontaneously handcuffed the speaker to the stage after they threw that balloon at him. Moderates like ACT UP president Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) and field director Sophie (Adèle Haenel) wish everyone could have kept their cool a little more. Impassioned radicals like Sean (Argentinian actor Nahuel Peréz Biscayart, in the film’s breakout performance) believe they did the right thing, and wished they’d gone even further. Helene (Catherine Vinatier), mother of a teenage hemophiliac Marco (Théophile Ray), would just like the group to take another action soon so she can get rid of all the fake blood her son made in their bathtub.
But while the policy debates and political actions form the fascinating spine of the movie, it’s its pulsating humanity that sticks with you. Perhaps no one embodies that humanity better than Biscayart’s Sean, whose stunning conviction to live his life fully with what little time he has is as mesmerizing in the field as it is on a dance floor, where the group goes for release after invading the offices of a pharmaceutical company, or barging into high-school classrooms to hand out condoms, or getting out of jail. (The film’s title refers not to an elevated heart rate, but the tempo of electronic music.) It’s no wonder that Nathan pursues him with feverish desire, and then measured caution, mostly prompted by Sean, as they work to navigate around their opposite HIV statuses, and swap stories of their sexual histories in one of the most intimate bedroom scenes, gay or straight, I have ever seen onscreen.
Even in their moments of escape, though, the specter of mortality is never gone — a fact Campillo drives home in a beautiful shot in which dust floating through the air against strobe lights transforms into microbes floating across the screen as if in a Petri dish. We become invested in this community of outcasts as they live, love, fight, and fuck, knowing that the sick will inevitably get sicker, and that this Gay Pride Parade they’re so feverishly debating may, for some of their number, be their last. And even as the vibrancy of the earlier sections fades into the devastating conclusion we all knew was coming, we never lose sight of the humans in the room, confronting death, losing someone they love, grasping for hope when society is offering them none. For Campillo, this is personal and it shows. “I actually had to dress a friend of mine who had died,” he said at a press conference. “When you really experience this firsthand you realize these are very simple moments. You don’t break down and cry.” Instead, he seems to be saying, you gather. You hold one another. You fight and you fight and you fight, as long as your body will allow it, so that no one is alone.