Run, do not walk, to see BPM, the 2017 Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix Winner. Worthy of an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, it’s a fascinating insight into the inner-workings of ACT UP and how it actually works. It’s sexy, funny, intense, and heart-wrenching.
BPM follows two young gay men, Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). Nathan (HIV-negative) is the young newbie, while Sean is one of the co-founders of ACT UP Paris. The film is centered around their relationship, is set in the early nineties against a backdrop of activism and urgency. I stopped noticing that the French film was subtitled about 30 minutes into it, because that’s how mesmerized by the story I became.
This movie, a drama, essentially picks up where David France’s 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague leaves off. It opens with an ACT UP meeting, and cuts back and forth between the meeting and a demonstration. The rules of ACT UP are clearly outlined in the beginning, but rules were made to be broken. There is always plenty of conflict, both within the meetings and in the outside world. In one scene, frustrated by the powers that be and by the reluctance of schools to provide accurate information, activists take matters into their own hands by passing out flyers to students on how to protect themselves.
Visually BPM is a work of art. The film moves effortlessly from a scene of an ACT UP demonstration to activists dancing in the clubs, and ends with a visual representation of how HIV infects a cell, without any explanation or dialogue—and leaves you breathless. Director Robin Campillo uses the color red predominantly throughout the film, weaving it skillfully into a river of blood in a memorable dream sequence.
The graphic sex scenes are erotic without being gratuitous, and you come to understand more about the characters during them. In one scene while Nathan and Sean are talking during sex (yes, people actually do that!), the camera flashes back to sex with another man (to portray the time Sean was probably infected), but you don’t realize it at first.
Music becomes its own character in this film, and Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy, an ’80s gay anthem, taking center stage. The film’s title, BPM, takes from the phrase beats per minute, which is a term used to signify songs that are in the same tempo, and is a categorizing system used by club DJs to mix songs together. It also comes to represent the beating of the heart and the passing of time that our characters don’t have the luxury of—the sound of the beating heart builds continuously throughout the film’s score, accentuating the sense of urgency in the lives of these young activists.
There is a vivid reenactment of a demonstration at Melton Pharmaceuticals in which activists are trying to obtain the results of a pivotal protease inhibitor trial, splashing fake blood all over the carpeted office. The bloody handprint on the transparency for the overhead projector left quite an impression on me.
‘There are times when I see how AIDS has changed my life. It’s as if I lived things more intensely, as if I saw the world differently.’
Afterward they board a train, and Sean turns to his comrades and says, “There are times when I see how AIDS has changed my life. It’s as if I lived things more intensely, as if I saw the world differently. As if it had more colors, more noise, more life.”
The activism of these young men and women runs in parallel to their own lives affected by AIDS. Many brilliant young lives were extinguished at the height of the epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s, and this story is no exception. The courage of early activists paved the way for a better life eventually for all of us living with HIV, but this film humanizes them, with all their fearlessness and their flaws.