The history of activism within the LGBT community is a narrative complicated by one of the most devastating diseases in modern history. After the mode of political discourse targeting capitalist institutions and before the trend toward more homonormative aspirations, the AIDS epidemic forced thousands of people from around the world to define their cause as a literal fight for their very lives. The stigma surrounding the disease was complicated further by the fact that one didn’t necessarily have to be homosexual to contract it, yet the prejudice nevertheless persisted. All that could be done was to convey the struggle in urgent, emphatically human terms that targeted bureaucratic ineptitude. That’s what BPM (Beats Per Minute) strives to capture, particularly at the nexus where the personal meets the political.
The film thrusts us almost immediately into the dynamics of the Parisian chapter of ACT UP, opening with an organized demonstration and the heated debate in its aftermath. By cross-cutting between the event and the ensuing discussion among its participants, director and co-editor Robin Campillo (he shares this latter credit with Anita Roth and Stephanie Leger) captures the immediacy, not to mention the importance, of persistent communication in relation to sustained sociopolitical efficacy. In fact, several of the most fascinating sequences in the film are of it’s characters congregated in a lecture hall formulating possible slogans, events, and tactics meant to contest and improve the efforts of Melton Pharmaceuticals in finding a viable cure. These scenes say as much about the varying degrees of political ideology from particular members as they do about their own personal temperaments, and BPM attains a vivid palpability when these elements organically converge in moments of agreement or furious discord.
Even beyond the confines of their meetings, the members of ACT UP carry the specter of HIV with them. One of the more remarkable flourishes Campillo performs is elucidating the way the political signification of the disease transmutes into it’s literal manifestation in a microscopic tracking shot that floats into a cluster of dust motes lingering in the air of a discotheque. Space, as well as its subsequent politicization, is prevalent throughout the film in the public and private sphere, from the aforementioned club several members attend to the bedroom where two of them, Sean and Nathan (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart and Arnaud Valois, respectively), rendezvous. These men, the former a longtime activist and the latter a novice, gradually become the chief characters of the film. Their relationship embodies the more intensely personal angle of Campillo’s dramatization of his and co-writer Phillipe Mangeot’s experiences as members of ACT UP in the early 90s. Sean and Nathan, in their first sexual consummation, relate to one another their first homosexual encounters. For Sean, that resulted in becoming HIV Positive, or “a poz” as many call themselves. Who is at fault, they wonder; the older man who had sex with the teenage Sean and knew he was ill or the state for insufficiently educating the public? Campillo and Mangeot utilize this query to pinpoint the fatal cause of so many deaths as one of ignorance, either willing or unwilling, on an individual or societal level without resorting to vindictive superciliousness in their assessment.
As the film progresses, it’s focus narrows from social contextualization to insular drama as it chronicles the slow death of one of its characters. Some may find this plot decision somewhat clichéd after the focus on political activism and the specifics of cultural designations differentiating gay activists from the apolitical subset they call “zombie fags”. But as this phrase demonstrates, death was an inescapable reality for far too many living with AIDS, and Campillo breaks from his predecessors by emphasizing small moments and gestures rather than platitudinous profundities. A handjob in a hospital is both quietly funny and a vulnerable stab at vitality. Another scene where the mother of the dying man sets his deathbed is unbearably moving. There is no sentiment or manipulative jabs at eliciting tears from the audience in these passages, but rather an unwavering gaze at the slow indignity this form of death assumes and how a community copes with it. In an earlier scene, one of the leading members proposes wheeling patients near death in a forthcoming gay pride parade as a stark reminder of their reality, which incurs the wrath of Sean. There is a fine line between exposure and exploitation, and the film treads that division carefully and, in my mind, respectfully through its portrayal of unshakably real tragedy.
BPM is not a perfect film. While some of Campillo’s impressionist touches harmoniously coexist with his predominantly realist aesthetic, there are a few that risk redundancy. The closing scene in particular threatens to overwhelm the raw emotion of its preceding passages with an overly clever, though conceptually logical, final statement. That said, BPM provides an invaluable historical recollection of a particular grassroots effort, especially one defined by impending mortality. By paying homage to his peers, both still living and long gone, Campillo’s film, which is also the story of so many, serves to impart upon anyone with a budding political conviction invaluable lessons on how to articulate the prevalence of politics within the idiom of the quotidian.