As the old saying (kind of) goes, it takes a village to fight a plague. Therein lies the thrust of Robin Campillo’s new film ‘BPM’, a thrillingly political, emotionally devastating, and invigoratingly queer portrayal of Parisian AIDS activists as they fight, fuck, love and die at the dawn of the 1990s. Taking the French arm of the New York-originating activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) as their focus, Campillo and co-screenwriter Phillipe Mangeot craft a bold, sprawling portrait of a community in a time of extreme crisis, forging an intimate epic on the personal made political and vice versa. Fully embracing the erotic and radical potential of queer love, the film delivers some of the most breathtakingly powerful sex scenes I’ve seen in a cinema in a very long time, nestled amongst urgent debates around the ethics of protest and the heartbreaking devastation of a decimated LGBTQI+ populace.
Campillo thrusts us into the group’s weekly meetings in an unremarkable lecture theatre somewhere in Paris. After some cannily delivered exposition thanks to an introduction to procedures for new members, we’re right in the thick of it. As Sophie (Adèle Haenel) recounts the ways in which a previously glimpsed protest was overtaken by a faction of more radical and unapologetically confrontational members, we’re thrown into the first of many heated debates, setting up the divisive question that every member of the group is wrestling with – how hard can you push when you’re fighting for your life? Amongst those newcomers is Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a handsome, HIV-negative gay man, who is soon drawn to the more vehemently militant “poz” Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, simply stunning in a virtuosic performance), one of the “back-row radicals” who took over the protest by roughly handcuffing a fake blood-drenched pharmaceutical rep.
Essentially, this is a new queer classic, a fantastically robust documentation of a time too often co-opted by straight filmmakers and po-faced prestige titles. Where others have gone for melodrama or cheap waterworks, here we’re given astute, textured and down-to-earth interactions between triumphantly non-heterosexual people. Campillo’s camera zooms in on this community to the exclusion of all others with purposefully claustrophobic effect, as the isolation of their movement and the solidarity it forges between them (“We don’t like each other, but we’re friends,” as one character says in an attempt at connection with a dying comrade) deepens and complicates every relationship. It’s all painted so assuredly and with such care – as is to be expected when both writers were a part of the very organisation they’re depicting, with Mangeot even serving as president for a time in the late 90s. It’s from this clear use of their own lived experiences that the film is also so damn funny, as the filmmakers don’t forget to let us in on the moments of joy and weaponised wit that see these characters through their darkest times. There’s even an early nod to the ridiculous canonisation of the “suffering gay” in the worst kinds of prestige AIDS dramas, as one character looks off into the distance and delivers a poetic monologue about how AIDS has opened his eyes to the beauty of the world – only to be unable to keep a straight face at the sheer ludicrousness of such a statement.
The meetings and the disputes they hold are thrillingly detailed, dense affairs. Rather than simplifying these complex debates down to hero-worshipping soundbites, Campillo and his co-editors allow the scenes to expand and breathe; feverishly capturing every argument lobbed with sublimely intricate editing that never calls attention to itself – until, of course, it does, as when they seamlessly transition between a night club of teeming masses and the microscopic views of the infected cells within them, in one of a series of breathtaking coups de cinéma. Speaking of which, the film’s true central set piece qualifies easily as one of the great scenes of the year, as the first time Nathan and Sean have sex morphs from an impressively frank and sensual depiction of the logistics and precautions of sex between two men (particularly when one of them is HIV-positive) into a visual treatise on queer histories as embodied, reverberating acts of intimacy and connection. It’s simple, it’s evocative, and it’s a jaw-dropping moment of sensuality and beauty, all tied to queer bodies. It’s one of many ways in which the film separates itself from films that are really just about gay people, clarifying its status as a truly queer work of art.
...a new queer classic, a fantastically robust documentation of a time too often co-opted by straight filmmakers and po-faced prestige titles. Where others have gone for melodrama or cheap waterworks, here we’re given astute, textured and down-to-earth interactions between triumphantly non-heterosexual people.
And this is without even getting to the performances, each of which is strong and engaged, even when the script asks for briefly sketched yet fully realised characters. All of the ensemble deliver with aplomb, particularly Valois as the film’s honest, open-hearted centre, but especially Pérez Biscayart, who grabs the film by the throat from his first entrance and owns every moment he’s on screen. It’s a righteously enraged performance, portraying an unapologetically femme and faggy homosexual man as strong and complex and wickedly intelligent, charting every moment of his physical decline and emotional turbulence with an impressive clarity of vision. Much like the film that barely contains him, it is an act of queer representation and illumination that comes at an incredibly appropriate time, as we get a hard-won opportunity to honour those who fought for change before us, and celebrate their humanity, their temerity, and their victories.
After all, it takes a village.