At the Philadelphia Film Festival, writer and director Robin Compillo unveiled BPM (Beats Per Minute), a riveting and painful film that recounts in chilling detail the often tragic battles — personal and political — of AIDS patients and activists. It’s a period piece set in the 1990s, during the early days of ACT UP, an activist group known for their anger, courage, and the intimidating level of knowledge they brought to debates with politicians and medical researchers.
It’s upsetting to realize an entire adult generation wasn’t born when the war against the AIDS epidemic began. Even more distressing to those of us who survived that war is how little the younger generation knows of what those days were like.
But then, that’s the way, isn’t it? Every generation fixates on its own concerns, with little interest in the history of its predecessors. But history, and the history of AIDS in particular, is important for reasons too numerous to explain here. The disease impacted society, particularly gay culture, in ways that are still felt today. It is of paramount importance that those early days be remembered and examined.
The story follows the membership of ACT UP Paris through a conflict with a major French pharmaceutical company. The activists seek the release of information concerning a new class of anti-AIDS drugs being developed, information the scientists are reluctant to share. The film shows how the activists operate, organize, plan, and execute their disruptive actions.
While it’s clear our sympathies are meant to be with ACT UP, the scientists are not portrayed as villains. Many of them are also sympathetic to the activists’ sense of desperation and frustration, and are dedicated to finding an effective treatment for the disease. But these scientists have trained and worked all their lives observing certain rigid, time-tested protocols. They are asking for time, something the activists and their loved ones don’t have.
Love among the ruins
The film also gives a personal face to the issue by following a developing relationship between two activists: Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), one of the founders of the group whose health is beginning to slide, and Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a new recruit who is uninfected. We watch as they navigate such complications as sex between an HIV-positive and HIV-negative person, and the pain as Nathan moves into the role of caregiver, nursing this increasingly helpless man he loves.
Compillo utilizes a spare, realistic style, avoiding Hollywood sentimentality. Events are laid out with admirable directness, without unnecessary directorial flourish. As a result, we are drawn into the intensity and gravity of the moment without being emotionally manipulated; both the politics and the tragedy feel more honest.
Honest is also the word that best describes the cast. Even in moments of high drama, it doesn’t feel like we’re watching actors, but people struggling against a set of implacable circumstances. Biscayart and Valois peel back the veil of artifice, especially during their sex scenes. Since this is a French movie, those scenes are explicit to a degree we’re not used to seeing in U.S. movies — but they aren’t tawdry or titillating. Rather, they are intimate glimpses of two lost souls reaching for a connection in a very dark and frightening time.
BPM is not an easy film to watch, particularly if you are a survivor of those years. But even if you’re not, you’ll come away from the experience feeling a little bit of what it was like to live in the dark days of the plague.