BPM takes place in France during the 1990s and focuses on a group of activists, ACT UP Paris, who attempt to bring awareness to the AIDS crisis. The film is drawn from the personal experiences of director Robin Campillo and co-writer Philippe Mangeot during their time with ACT UP.
The members of ACT UP meet weekly in a classroom to discuss the effectiveness of their protest and awareness efforts during the previous week, recent medicinal advancements to fight AIDS, and to plan upcoming events. Their cooperation and organization is remarkable, even when disagreements arise. BPM, being released in US theaters this Friday, is unusually timely in light of recent confusion about what it means to protest and what creates an effective protest.
A good portion of the film’s 140 minute runtime takes place in the classroom. Campillo does an admirable job directing an ensemble cast through lengthy scenes. Even outside of the classroom, scenes are not truncated in the way that many directors would. Campillo lets each scene ‘breathe’ (proofreading now: that was an entirely unintentional pun on the title) and I believe there’s some element of improvisation and authenticity that occurs as the actors have to take in the dialogue and the gravity of the scene and react to it over the course of, sometimes, several minutes.
Outside of the organization, members of ACT UP frequent nightclubs and these brief scenes bombard with sound and flashing lights. Campillo uses the opportunity here as well to take the camera out of focus to allow for artistic transitions like those in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love. The club scenes complement the energy of the meetings and protests, and add the necessary humanistic element to the film. These are people who love to dance, love their friends, and love their lives. They protest for a better quality of life.
At the start of the film, Nathan (Arnuad Valois) is new to ACT UP and he quickly discovers a sense of belonging within the club. He falls in love with Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) who is dying from AIDS. Sean is a passionate activist and there is always an intensity to any scene with him. Biscayart may have found his breakout role in BPM. The progression of Sean’s illness is tragic to watch and Biscayart is very convincing in his acting- it seems like someone is actually dying as Sean succumbs to his illness.
Unlike when viewing The Square and Thelma, there was no clapping when BPM’s credits started to roll. Just stunned silence. It was a full minute before anyone left the theatre. I don’t think anyone had dry eyes.