BPM (Beats Per Minute) sets the stage with an incident of activism that can be seen multiple ways. The Paris division of ACT UP – which stands for AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power – infiltrates a speech by blaring airhorns and whistles, then proceeds to interrogate the speaker about their efforts to curb the AIDS crisis in the early 1990s. The moment is tense to say the least, but then a balloon full of fake blood hits the speaker, and everyone stops dead in their tracks.
BPM later cuts to a post-speech meeting, where some believe the movement should remain peaceful, while others know the clock is ticking on their own lives, and that desperate times call for desperate actions. For the members of ACT UP, action is dire, with their lives hanging in the balance, and BPM thrives when the film focuses on the various ways to handle reaching the same goal.
Written and directed by Robin Campillo, who cowrote the Oscar-winning The Class and the under-seen Eastern Boys, the film excels at getting a group of well-rounded character together into a room and watching them hash out a given question. The majority of BPM takes place in meetings, where characters work out the methodical day-to-day of their fight, and embraces the mundane business of trying to make a difference. Campillo segments BPM through the group’s various demonstrations, from an aggressive attack of a pharma group that’s hiding their AIDS research results, to planning how they should use a gay pride parade for their goals.
BPM’s most glorious, transcendent moments come through simple editing, of which Campillo handled with Stephanie Leger and Anita Roth. These demonstrations are punctuated by brief respites of joy, where the activists dance away their worries. BPM edits these moments seamlessly, turning the sweat on the dance floor into stars, then transforming again into the AIDS virus attacking a person’s immune system. In a film primarily set in meeting rooms, these moments are jarringly beautiful and give the audience a break much like it gives its characters, even though the threat of upcoming death still looms overhead.
BPM isn’t quite as strong when it attempts to handle the fight on a more personal level. Despite some vague knowledge of other ACT UP members, BPM mainly focuses on the budding romance between one of the founders of the Paris branch, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) – who has AIDS, and the new recruit Nathan (Arnaud Valois), who does not. In one of BPM’s finest scenes, Sean and Nathan have their first sexual encounter with each other, showing just how careful the couple have to be in order to protect each other. This moment also features some of the film’s excellent editing, cutting Sean and Nathan’s intimate moment with the sexual encounter in which Sean contracted AIDS. The sequence is powerful in how it shows the horrific dangers that can come from such affection, while also presenting Sean’s fears of hurting Nathan, even when his intentions are pure.
Again, it’s the film’s editing that gives the moment power, rather than the lackluster script, which makes Nathan and Sean’s relationship unfortunately quite cookie cutter. Campillo presents that Sean and Nathan will be on two different journeys with and without AIDS, but never expresses that moment between them with any strength. This is best handled once more when the two are presented in a group setting, but one-on-one, it’s as if Campillo doesn’t know how to write their intimacy with any substance.
As a larger look at the AIDS crisis in the 1990s, BPM (Beats Per Minute) works as if it could be the fictionalized counterpart to the documentary How to Survive a Plague, showcasing the ticking clock that these protesters have that literally means life of death for them. Parts of BPM resonate just as much now as it did then, almost enough to forget the unflattering romance at the core of its story.