BPM (Beats Per Minute) Is the First AIDS Film Where the Group Is the Hero

Photo: Momento Film

Some spoilers for BPM (Beats Per Minute) below.

It’s impossible to even begin talking about a movie like BPM (Beats Per Minute) — French director Robin Campillo’s thrilling, heartbreaking portrayal of the AIDS activist group ACT UP Paris in the early-to-mid-1990s — without stating first that such a film about the epidemic has never been made, nor perhaps ever will be made, in the United States.

Here, we’ve been beholden to scripted narratives (some of them quite good) that have always sentimentally framed any progress against the disease as the heroic work of one person, always a white man. We had Ned Weeks in The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s apoplectic song of himself. We had Prior Walter in Angels in America, raging against his own death in a lonely, martyred fight in the middle of New York City — even though, at that time, AIDS activism and community swirled all around him. And, more recently, we had Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club, the only person capable of getting potentially lifesaving drugs to Texas AIDS patients — even though he’s a homophobic straight man (who, of course, comes to see the error of his ways thanks to a tough yet tender transgender sex worker, who — of course — must die). In America, at least in our pop-culture reflection of our reality, we don’t seem to want movements. We want magic.

ACT UP Paris (in which Campillo was a deeply involved member) began in 1989 and was inspired by the founding chapter, ACT UP New York, which formed in 1987 and went on to do extraordinary work fighting the epidemic in the U.S.: shaming, discomfiting, and even assisting government entities into action. All of this was done within the framework of open-floor weekly meetings, often grindingly tedious, sometimes devolving into ideological and temperamental mayhem. But it’s no surprise that France, with its traditionally deeper socialist regard for the messy collective rather than the rugged individual, beat America to the punch in creating a film that shows how changes in dealing with HIV/AIDS actually happened: in long, difficult meetings; among many people of different priorities, dispositions, genders and sexualities; and never magically. (Until, that is, the drudgery of recon and planning exploded into those fabulously scary public actions that stopped traffic, upended bureaucratic business as usual … and mesmerized the mainstream media.)

One of the keen thrills of BPM (which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes earlier this year, disgorging a roomful of weeping viewers at its end) is the prodigious amount of time it spends in those meetings, deep in the trenches with its characters as they struggle for a collective goal. There, members of Paris ACT UP — a preternaturally good-looking group of mostly queer young Parisians in jeans and combat boots, smoking, dancing, and fucking their nights away to Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” — applaud one another for small victories won, haggle over the finest, most technical points of strategy and policy, and debate how far their actions should go in terms of violence or vandalism.

Their disagreements sometimes boil over into painful explosions and walkouts, especially from members of the group actually living with HIV and facing their likely imminent deaths. This includes Sean (played with both acidity and vulnerability by Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), the dark-featured, sharp-tongued waif who is the movie’s center, but never its hero. Sean is energized and outspoken in meetings, driving actions forward, but he’s so scared and angry that he’s often also hurtful and disruptive, lashing out at and demonizing other members. It’s a painful and truthful depiction of how such meetings often went down. Yet the fact that Sean doesn’t exactly save the day or command one valiant centerpiece speech, as he would in an American film, doesn’t detract from our empathy for him when he becomes the center of the film’s final segment.

Despite their raw face-offs, the members of ACT UP Paris always come back together, whether for the next meeting or at the next street action. They march in the otherwise tepid Paris LGBT Pride parade, dressed as American cheerleaders in order to promote condoms and HIV testing, chanting, “Fags, dykes, wake up now!” They ride out their often bitter disputes for the sake of the larger project: shaking France’s government and its pharmaceutical powers into action to prevent more infections and to bring lifesaving drugs to market fast. And they learn the hard way that when it comes to forcing change, they can’t choose between civilly negotiating with power brokers or rudely embarrassing them in public — they have to divvy up roles and do both at the same time. It is an incredible lesson in activism for our present moment.

BPM is also joyously sexual in a way that few American AIDS films — and even recent American LGBT screen narratives, made in a more permissive time — have allowed themselves to be. The French tend to see sex as akin to good wine or a long vacation (a pleasure to be savored, not a megillah to torture oneself over), and the militants of BPM have sex all the time, even as they’re fighting and sometimes dying, embracing condoms and safer sex practices as tools that allow them to go on enjoying a vital part of life. One of the film’s most tender and pathos-eliciting scenes is a sex scene. And, particularly in the film’s final lines of dialogue, BPM is unashamed in how it portrays lust and grief existing in the exact same moment in time.

BPM passes in something of a fever dream of medical minutiae, bureaucratic disruptions, revels on dance floors to pulsing house music (which whoosh through the film in great emotive waves that will undo anyone, like this writer, who spent too many nights lost in the endless loop of a four-four thump), and scenes of almost unbearable grief and anger. In its emotionally overpowering final 30 minutes, the film fuses all of these elements, underscoring the fact that, for the members of ACT UP Paris, political activism and personal love were the same thing, inextricably bound — even if, at times, such a double helix could make for harrowing ruptures in friendships and alliances.

“Why are you here?” Sean, hospitalized, asks of Thibault (based on ACT UP co-founder Didier Lestrade), also HIV-positive, who pays him a motherly visit. The two had often sparred sharply in meetings. Thibault shrugs as if the the answer is obvious. “We don’t like each other,” he says. “But we’re friends.” Activist alliances, prickly and charged yet bonded in shared struggle, have never been more pithily described.

As BPM moves inexorably toward a major loss for its community of hard-charging queers, rather than closing in on one person whose face is supposed to stand in for multitudes, the camera instead pulls back to reveal the collective. As we see the members of ACT UP Paris file, one by one and two by two, into the claustrophobic apartment where one of their own has just died, the film makes it clear that there is no separation between grief and activism, love and anger. The last shots cut between people fucking, sobbing, dancing — and, finally, throwing the ashes of their dead compatriot onto the lavish conference banquet tables of the drugmakers who have been withholding key treatments from them. All four actions look equally necessary and cathartic.

BPM Is the First AIDS Film Where the Group Is the Hero