“BPM (Beats per Minute)” is about a movement and a moment and the people in it, and it’s also about two faces in the throng and the alchemy that draws them together. The movie’s a social history, a love story, and a call to arms. It’s very sad and it’s very good.
The setting is France in the early 1990s; the subject is the AIDS crisis and the infuriated response by gay activists to the intransigent neglect of the government and the medical research community. Director Robin Campillo and his co-writer, Philippe Mangeot, were on the front lines, and “BPM” has at times the buzzy, crowded feel of a recovered documentary. It’s an intimate epic, a reportorial chamber drama.
The movie begins and constantly returns to the fractious strategy meetings of ACT UP Paris, its members united by anger and urgency. The designated leader is the pragmatic Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), but this is a group primed to distrust leaders, and the dissections of recent actions, like the bobbled disruption of a bureaucratic government presentation, is intense. Approval is signaled by the snapping of fingers, and that clickety-clack chorus becomes the movie’s refrain.
Other faces emerge from the overfilled lecture hall where the group meets. Nathan (Arnaud Valois) is a new recruit, handsome and lucky so far in matters viral. Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) is older, smaller, sicker, funnier, angrier. The two go along on a protest at a research company, help invade an urban high school to pass out condoms and leaflets (some teachers are on board, others not so much), and share in the communal ecstasy of the dance floor. The title of “BPM” refers to the heady electronic music that percolates through the movie, to the galloping heartbeats of its ardent characters, and to the knowledge that heartbeats ultimately slow and that the music some day has to stop.
There are jokes and infights, feuds and forgiveness. The conversation in meetings and over food is rife with acronyms — AZT, DDI, DDC — and talk of dwindling T4 cell counts. An informal tutorial on how to make fake blood for protest actions is interrupted by the genuine blood suddenly flowing from a character’s nose.
The filmmakers are trying to cram it all in and they largely succeed, creating a wise, varied portrait of a society in crisis and in denial. We glimpse well-meaning officials who aren’t doing enough, sick men’s mothers who are doing too much, homophobic high school girls, activists who lose sight of the individuals beneath the message. When Thibault tells the group that the sickest among them should be in the front lines of the next protest, the scrappy Sean has had enough and lets out a howl of outrage against his exploitation. “BPM” is precisely about what it means to be human in a society predisposed to seeing only groups.
Accordingly, Campillo seems to take his cameras down to the molecular level at times, as if he wanted to get beneath the skin of his characters and their times. “BPM” lets the sex scenes between Sean and Nathan linger at length, making us witnesses to not only the couple’s physical union but their affection and humor, the confessions and mutual reliance. In this movie, knowing how to put in a sterile drip tube becomes the ultimate expression of love, and offering one final moment of pleasure may be the only way to say goodbye.
“BPM” is an affecting memorial about being alive and being heard — a movie that says the only things that matter in life are love, righteous struggle, and the joy of being with others. It shakes all three until their atoms get up and dance.
BPM (Beats Per Minute)
Directed by Robin Campillo. Written by Campillo and Philippe Mangeot. Starring Antoine Reinartz, Adele Haenel, Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois. At Brattle. 143 minutes. Unrated (as R: language, nudity, sexuality, violence). In French, with subtitles.