BPM (Beats Per Minute)

BPM-2017-rev BPM (Beats Per Minute)  (2017)    Memento Films/Drama    RT: 140 minutes    No MPAA rating (language, thematic elements)    Director: Robin Campillo    Screenplay: Robin Campillo and Philippe Mangeot    Music: Arnaud Rebotini    Cinematography: Jeanne Lapoirie    Release date: November 3, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adele Haenel, Antoine Reinartz, Felix Maritaud, Ariel Borenstein, Aloise Sauvage, Medhi Toure, Simon Bourgade, Simon Guelat, Catherine Vinatier, Theophile Ray, Saadia Ben Taleb, Jean-Francois Auguste, Coralie Russier.      Spoken in French w/English subtitles


 For me, the best drama dealing with gays and the AIDS epidemic is 1990’s deeply affecting Longtime Companion. The way it depicts a dwindling group of friends over the course of nearly a decade still hits me where it counts. It was one of the first films to put human faces on a terrible disease with no known cure. It was a health crisis to which the government and drug companies were indifferent. Sure, they paid a lot of lip service to it but they weren’t in any big hurry to solve it. There was a school of thought (perpetrated by right-wing religious nuts, no doubt) that AIDS was a punishment from God for sexually deviant behavior. Really? What about the drug addicts, prisoners and hemophiliacs who also contracted HIV? What sin did they commit to deserve to suffer and die?

 bpm-beats-per-minuteOops, sorry. Didn’t mean to jump into activist mode but it’s unavoidable when discussing a movie like BPM (Beats Per Minute), a French-made drama about the members of the Paris chapter of ACT UP, an anti-AIDS activist group that staged theatrical-like protests as a means of calling attention to something the higher-ups would rather ignore. The title (in France, it’s called 120 Battements Par Minute) refers to the human heart AND modern dance music. The movie, set in the early 90s, has both. The heart is in the unlikely love story between pint-sized provocateur Sean (Argentine actor Biscayart) and Nathan (Valois), a quiet newcomer to the group. What makes it so unlikely is not their demeanor but their HIV status. Sean is positive, Nathan is negative. The music is in the scenes where the characters dance to throbbing house music in crowded clubs. No matter how vehemently they disagree in WMs (weekly meetings), music is always a unifying factor.

 BPM (Beats Per Minute) focuses on several characters: pragmatic group head Thibault (Reinartz) who tries to strike a balance between attention-grabbing protests (like decorating the walls of a pharmaceutical company with fake blood) and constructive conversation with company reps over releasing the results of recent inhibitor tests; teenage hemophiliac Max (Maritaud) who contacted the disease through a blood transfusion; his supportive single mom Helene (Vinatier); efficient, front-of-the-line Sophie (Haenel), one of the few women in the group and Jeremie (Borenstein) who’s sicker than he lets on. Almost all members are HIV positive. They just want their voices heard before they die and will achieve this goal by any means necessary. They know that they will likely be arrested and thrown in jail for many hours; they bring their meds just in case. Listening to them strategize in the WMs is one of the most interesting aspects of the movie.

 For the most part, I like BPM (Beats Per Minute) even though it has a tendency to meander. At 140 minutes, it runs a bit longer than it needs to yet I never actually felt bored. Aside from the love story, there’s no real “plot” of which to speak. It’s more of an examination of a group of people brought together by a tragic commonality who try to make a difference in the world. Ah, youthful idealism and activism. The thing about BPM (Beats Per Minute) is that it feels real and sincere. The director Robin Campillo (Disorder) describes himself as “an ACT UP militant in the 90s”. He knows what went on at the meetings and how the members talked, debated and fought with each other. It gives the movie a sense of authenticity that no filmmaker could otherwise achieve.

 Near the end, BPM (Beats Per Minute) settles into a more traditional narrative when- SPOILER ALERT!- a major character’s health really starts to decline in the final act. As this person lays dying, decisions and amends need to be made. I didn’t touch me as deeply as Longtime Companion but it’s still quite affecting. What makes it work as well as it does is solid acting. The performances in BPM (Beats Per Minute) are all quite good, none of them feel forced. Their characters have a natural rapport be it positive or negative. The cinematography by Jeanne Lapoirie is also a strong point. The dazzling, forceful way Campillo moves his camera through meeting and street protests is impressive. BPM (Beats Per Minute) is certainly stylish but it could have benefited from more intimacy. It would have made it all the more affecting. However, Campillo succeeds in blasting a society that turns its back on people in need. Where is the humanity in denying people with AIDS the same attention paid to those with less controversial diseases like cancer? Both diseases kill, why not treat them with equal importance? His critique comes a bit late but it’s better than never. 

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