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In the electric first half of BPM (Beats Per Minute) the film charts the movement of a group of HIV/AIDS activists in France in the early 1990s, just as the virus became a household name and those ravaged by it had grown tired of the pervasive silence around the pandemic. Director Robin Campillo, and screenwriter Philippe Mangeot, are said to have been associated with ACT UP well enough to avoid carrying any further investigation on the group while making the film. Most of what appears on screen is relayed through a sense of what was seen, heard and felt first-hand—and it shows. Campillo, a self-described ACT UP militant in the ’90s, directs this hefty 140-minute epic with a kinesthesia and sensitivity only the touch of lived experience can communicate.
Observing the drawn-out moral debates, the dense ethnographic study and the pulse-pounding acts of protest, for a short while I was convinced I was watching The Battle of Algiers reembodied as a saga on HIV/AIDS activism. Campillo employs the same percussive rhythm as Gillo Pontecorvo did back in 1966, and even lifts from his film a similar moral grey area. Like the Algerian revolutionary cells, the ACT UP activists are portrayed unsentimentally, with the spurned minorities in the role of aggressors—though only wielding airhorns and water balloons full of fake blood instead of explosives—their activism is shown to us as unapologetically as it’s handed out to its targets.
It seems, however, that initial reaction to BPM will be determined on the reaction to its somber, vastly decelerated second half where the ACT UP movement is bypassed in favor of a more intimate, detailed account on the ravages of AIDS, particularly on the activist Sean (in many ways the very life of the ACT UP movement). Despite Campillo’s meritable attempts to portray life and death as equal in the struggle for AIDS/HIV awareness, the effect of the second half still feels somewhat reduced in comparison. An argument can be made that this jarring shift was intentional, but the afference and energy of the first half leaves too lasting an impression for an absence not to be felt in its second half.
Sean himself—ACT UP’s beating heart—is an enthralling presence, a dedicated activist he remains unstintingly resolved to butt heads with the opposition until his AIDS makes him bedridden. His romance with fellow activist, and fellow HIV/AIDS patient, Nathan is given a rich intimacy, kindled in affection and searing in fleshy lust. There’s an extended, languorously erotic sequence of the lovers in bed, talking to each other and making love, which seems equally engrossed in personalities as it is in bodies.
And even as BPM strays away from character and into a focus on the collective movement, Campillo never loses is thoroughness, the many scenes depicting the ACT UP activist grouped together—whether in a big lecture hall or cramped living room—are the most dizzyingly articulate any scene in the film. Capturing fiery debates, heart-to-hearts and freethinking exchange, Campillo portrays ACT UP, not only as a collaborative body driving one idea and one voice forward, but a platform for multiple individual voices to be heard.
The spontaneous moments of happiness, sadness and anger that arise out of these discussions have the rare effect of feeling found rather than made, captured in an instant only friends ever get to share. Capturing these moments I’m compelled to say that Campillo has created an environment that actively invites my participation, a sentiment I don’t take very lightly. To see, feel and almost touch what Campillo did in the ‘90s makes it actively more challenging to distance myself from the material and to approach it more objectively—a rather astonishing accomplishment.
Combining stark histiography and intimate autobiography Campillo channels a past ingrained in both his and the public’s memory. His cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie proves essential to Campillo’s vision. Balancing the intimate, specific details as well as preserving a grainy, archival quality (suggesting a documentary), Lapoirie remarkably captures the essence of his work. But whether the film ends up categorized as memoir or docudrama, who can deny the personal vision driving this? Robin Campillo vision encompasses a phantasmagoric middle ground between fact and feeling—where a ride on the Paris Métro, and the constant rush through the city and its people, evince the feeling of one’s life flashing before your eyes, or where the strobing lights and pulsing beats of a nightclub manifest as the heartbeat of an entire movement.