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BPM (Beats Per Minute)

by Roger Walker-Dack
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Oct 11, 2017
'BPM (Beats Per Minute)'
'BPM (Beats Per Minute)'  

If David France's Oscar-nominated 'How To Survive a Plague' is recognized as the seminal movie on AIDS in the U.S., then Robin Campillo's stunning new masterpiece "BPM (Beats Per Minute)" is undoubtedly Europe's candidate for the title. His sprawling, harrowing tale centers on the ACT UP group in Paris and is based on his own experiences as an activist in the 1990s, but he adds a fictional love story that makes his account of the pandemic in France that much more personal and highly emotional.

The story starts at the group's volatile weekly meetings (WM) where the leaders insist on a rigid procedure so that they can get through their packed agenda. Everyone participating is fueled by anger and frustration, and they are passionate about getting the authorities and pharmaceutical companies to stop stalling and take some action, as the early regimen of drugs is useless at keeping the virus from being fatal.

As figures are released showing that the rate of new people being diagnosed as HIV+ are higher in France than any other European countries at that time, and many of the Paris collective see their T Cell counts quickly drop to dangerous levels, the need to take action takes on a greater urgency.

At the WMs there are plenty of heated discussions on what guerrilla actions they should take, not just to get their case across but also to force the hand of both Mitterand's inactive government and the reluctant drug companies. The cast of characters includes Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), their articulate leader, who, along with Sophie (Adèle Haenel), one of the organizers, prefers a more diplomatic approach. This, however, does not sit well with more militant members such as Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who want to adopt more confrontational tactics in the belief that is the only way to make the authorities take them seriously.

Sean's passionate determination attracts the attention of Nathan (Arnaud Valois), one of the group's newest members and one of the rare ones who is HIV-negative. While the first half of Campillo's drama focuses on the trials and tribulations of the ACT UP group and their activities, the latter part centers on the romantic relationship between the two men as they become lovers and then, eventually, as Nathan takes on the role of caregiver as Sean's health deteriorates.

Campillo perfectly captures the bewilderment of a community that struggles hard just to stay alive and abreast of every new development such as reactions to the existing regimen of AIDS drugs. This was the era immediately before the advent of protease inhibitors, which would finally change the playing field for nearly everyone who had been diagnosed HIV+. It is, however, the sheer authenticity of his script that makes this such a chilling and painfully disturbing film to watch; the inclusion of Nathan and Sean's brief but intense relationship makes the film devastatingly heartbreaking.

The cast - most of whom were born after this period - are pitch perfect in their portrayal of the indignant dying youth, particularly the two lead actors. Valois, as the slightly mysterious and compassionate Nathan, is a revelation, even more so when you discover that he had given up on acting a few years ago to focus on being a masseur. 30-year-old Argentinian actor Pérez Biscayart, who plays Sean, may not look his age, but he had a piercing intensity that made his superb performance so utterly compelling.

Campillo's brilliant movie deservedly scooped up four major awards when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year and is France's Official Submission for a Best Foreign Picture Oscar. However, the accolade that it would be honored for - and which in many eyes is even more important - is the fact that Campillo gives us a telling of this crucial part of our history through queer eyes, something that Hollywood would never dare to do.

Roger Walker-Dack, a passionate cinephile, is a freelance writer, critic and broadcaster and the author/editor of three blogs. He divides his time between Miami Beach and Provincetown.


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