BPM Looks Back on the AIDS Protests of the 1990s

BPM takes place in the 1990s with a real issue of the era but feels strangely relevant today. The French film—which is showing at Minneapolis’s St. Anthony Main Theatre through November 16, 2017—concerns the Paris-based chapter of the AIDS activist group ACT UP and their fight for a level of awareness of the disease seemingly ignored by the public and by health organizations. Teachers would rather not discuss safe-sex options, and a health company would decide not make public their findings on AIDS. ACT UP stages protest after protest, growing desperate as a handful of them don’t have much longer to live at this stage in their lives.

These ACT UP members are established more as individuals than archetypes, best revealed in two types of scenes. The first is the ACT UP group meetings, held in a classroom where they discuss their next plan of attack, laughing over protest slogans and arguing over the effectiveness of their message. The second is the more intimate scenes between its male members, shot mostly in darkness with personal talk in between sexual romps. Some effort is made to keep these worlds separate, made evident by organizers recommending that any personal bickering be taken into the hallway with cigarettes. The collective tries to maintain some amount of control and safety in their protests, but it’s not easy—not when your friends are dying and the next week could be their last.

A man celebrating at the parade

The Pride parade features ACT UP members making their voices heard. The Orchard

BPM brings us deep into this world, getting to know the characters more as people than instruments of the movement. Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) tries to lead the group in both loud protests against pharmaceuticals and engaging in serious and moderated discussion with them, trying to seek the peace in this fight. Sophie (Adèle Haenel) tries to make her voice heard and takes the initiative as one of the few women in the group, always eager with a new idea and willing to lead the charge in protests. Max (Félix Maritaud), a teen who contracted HIV through a transfusion, mixes fake blood in his bathtub to be used in demonstrations. Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) is a small, bright man with ideas for ACT UP who soon forms a relationship with a newbie. Nathan (Arnaud Valois). They share inspiration during group meetings and erotic passion behind closed doors, with a few dashes of distrust for drama.

At 140 minutes, director Robin Campillo holds the camera steady on the tougher moments of ACT UP. Death is common among the ranks and treated in a method both somber and enraging. Many members of the group opt for unique displays to make their deaths matter, submitting to either having their corpse paraded around town or their ashes were thrown in the faces of Big Pharma. The love story between Sean and Nathan never settles on being pinned down as an easy relationship; they fluctuate between postcoital personal talk of histories and accusing stares during meetings. Sean kisses Nathan during a heated invasion of a college campus to cause a scene and disgust those who would turn away from talk about AIDS. The lines between loyalty to the cause and dedication to love blur, sometimes meeting.

A man in a baseball cap and ACT UP PARIS T-shirt

Another ACT UP activist takes in the Pride parade. The Orchard

The film plays itself human, refusing to accent deaths with swelling music or angry protests with loud theatrics. Much like the cause of ACT UP itself, BPM strives to paint a picture of people forced to go to extreme measures when the government and labs turn away from them. There’s great humor, as when ACT UP looks forward to the Pride parade as a chance to have more fun with their message while making themselves heard. There’s a psychedelic trance of acceptance in the party moments when Sean and Nathan connect on the dance floor, but a nihilism in the endless cause where those on their deathbed are still thinking about the cause, embracing their release from pain and their protest carrying on after their passing. None of this is played up with sappiness, favoring a raw humanity to these protesters. The real-life demonstrators were deemed extremists by the government, the drug companies, and a public that didn’t much care to learn about or address the AIDS epidemic. But when you spend enough time with these characters, watching them wither away and struggle to maintain some level of focus and survival, their protests seem tame in comparison to how terrible their lives have become.

BPM is uncomfortable to watch at times for holding so heavily in the harsher light of AIDS rarely seen, but it’s a necessity of the cause and a call for political awareness. This is a film that grabs you by the hand and forces you to listen to its heartbeat, hearing every pulse come further and further apart until the audience is as galvanized as the AIDS victims.

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