Movies

Feeling the political heat of the beat

Robin Campillo’s “BPM (“Beats Per Minute)” mixes scenes of ACT UP demonstrations with a love story between activists.
Larry Busacca/Getty Images
Robin Campillo’s “BPM (“Beats Per Minute)” mixes scenes of ACT UP demonstrations with a love story between activists.

TORONTO — The French writer-director Robin Campillo was determined that “BPM (“Beats Per Minute),” his Paris-set tale of love and activism in the age of AIDS, would embrace what it means to be fully alive.

That’s because Campillo based the film on his own experiences alongside other young men and women in ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) in Paris in the early 1990s. The group’s confrontational, attention-grabbing actions such as throwing balloons full of fake blood inside the offices of pharmaceutical companies or lying down in the middle of the street like corpses were the brazen acts of young people with little patience or time to waste. “We never talked about death,” said Campillo, 55, in an interview at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. “We were too young to die, but the good thing is we were young enough to cope because we had a future, possibly. I’d never do it today, at my age.”

“BPM,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and which opens at the Brattle Theatre on Friday, is an ensemble film that follows a raucous group of early ’90s ACT UP members as they engage in theatrical street protests against drug companies and the French government, dance at clubs, argue politics and strategy at meetings, and fall in love. Gradually, the film focuses on the romantic relationship between new ACT UP member Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and the fiery, HIV-positive Sean (Argentinian actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart).

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Campillo, whose credits include “Eastern Boys” (2013) and “The Class” (2008), which he wrote and edited and which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for its director, Laurent Cantet, labored for years to find his way into the personal story he wanted to tell.

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“I was a young gay guy of 20 in 1982 when AIDS [became known]. We learned about it from [the United States] first. It was a shock,” he says. It wasn’t until a decade later that Campillo joined ACT UP. ”I wanted to be active, not a victim,” he says.

After directing the zombie thriller “They Came Back” (2004), Campillo wrote a script that dealt with AIDS called “Drug Holidays,” but says he wasn’t happy with it. “It was about just one person with AIDS,” he says, “For me, that wasn’t interesting.” Not until Campillo seized on the idea of depicting a group did “BPM” begin to gel. “I didn’t know that what I wanted to talk about was the creation of a political collective; when we decided it was a political thing, not just a disease.”

Time and distance also helped him feel more secure as a director (he also co-edited the film). He shot “BPM” in a naturalistic style, moving from heated scenes of boisterous meetings and street protests to raw, intimate moments between Sean and Nathan. “For me, film is a flow. I call it a river film because it is always moving,” Campillo says. “I love the idea that the spectator has the illusion that the film is about a particular character; this guy, or this guy, and [must] wait to know who is the protagonist.”

Campillo spent a long time on the casting process, seeking authenticity and chemistry between the actors, then encouraged them to make the characters their own. “You’ve got to have good actors. I found young people, mostly gay, and it was amazing to see these young people who could embody the people we were,” he says. In casting Sean and Nathan, Campillo was drawn to the contrast between the theatrical Biscayart and the quiet Valois. “A love story, for me, means nothing,” says Campillo. “I don’t know what love is, but I know what a story is.”

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At 31, Biscayart, who now lives in Paris, has no memory of ACT UP in its heyday. Although he and the other actors researched the era by reading books and watching documentaries, he understood that “BPM” was not about recreating history. “We were not making a period piece. It was more about the intensity of that moment, that emergency. And I think that we all identified with the fight, even though none of us were really around at that time,” says Biscayart, who joined Campillo at TIFF. “We were in the present, just shooting, and letting the energy of the characters and the time invade us.”

ACT UP’s brand of in-your-face activism has ongoing relevance, says Biscayart. AIDS activists “were stigmatized and told they were dangerous to society, so they turned that into a powerful tool and used the media to say, ‘This is what we look like.’”

For Campillo, it was essential to his own memory of the time that “BPM” feel contemporary. “I didn’t want to make a historical film. I wanted to give a ‘now’ to the story,” he says. “It was a way for me to say goodbye to my youth.”

Loren King can be reached at loren.king@comcast.net.