In Full Force
by Jeff Reichert
BPM (Beats Per Minute)
Dir. Robin Campillo, France, The Orchard
In the opening shots of Robin Campillo’s first film as a director, 2004’s They Came Back, a large group comprised mostly of nattily dressed senior citizens streams out of the gates of a cemetery. This throng wasn’t just visiting the graveyard for the day: these folks were, until moments prior, its permanent residents. The film’s premise is that, across the globe, some 70 million of the recently dead have spontaneously returned to life. For some filmmakers this would be the opening act for a zombie apocalypse, heavy on the gore. Campillo, however, spins this scenario into a drama of public health and personal ethics, as a French social safety net that’s already strained is forced to reincorporate so many recently dead (many of whom look to take back their old positions or pensions) and families are forced to reintegrate.
A kind of light zombie-ism crops up throughout Campillo’s career as a screenwriter and director. Think of his scenario for Laurent Cantet’s Time Out (which Campillo also edited), in which the recently unemployed Vincent continues to dress and head out to work every day, muscle memory propelling him forward even though now, jobless, he just floats through existence, near somnambulant. The film leaves it as an open question whether being employed in the modern world is actually less of a drift. The three female tourists in another collaboration with Cantet, Heading South, exist in similarly blinkered kind of existence, lulled by their easy access to pleasure. And in Campillo’s breakout film as a director, 2013’s Eastern Boys, a gay businessman who lives alone in a barely furnished apartment is brought out of a deep, undisclosed torpor by an encounter with an Eastern European rent boy. These characters are indeed among the living, but Campillo’s filmography constantly interrogates what that idea of living means.
It’s impossible not to think of the fine line between life and death in Campillo’s latest film, the epic BPM (Beats Per Minute), though in it we witness some of his most full-throated, hard-living characters. The film re-creates ACT UP-Paris in the early 1990s, when it was a group of mostly gay men, many HIV positive, fighting to pressure societal power brokers to takes AIDS seriously and aggressively research medical solutions that might save their lives. ACT UP-Paris was modeled after the activities of the original ACT UP chapter in New York and their brand of punkish, performative protests. In BPM, members of the organization spatter fake blood bombs across the pristine offices of a French pharmaceutical company, storm a high school classroom to distribute literature on safe sex practices, and block off streets with their prone bodies.
Campillo captures the protests in BPM, which regularly punctuate the film, with an energetic, roving camera, but he seems even more engaged by the private conversations that lead up to and follow the group’s public interventions. The film returns again and again to a sparse, tiered classroom space packed with activists who vigorously debate everything from their next targets to proper treatments to agitate for, to what form their activities in the annual Pride parade should take. These sequences evince a Wiseman-esque respect for and interest in the minutiae of process, of the drama inherent in situations that bring passionate, intelligent people together and grant them space to engage in conversations around shared interested. Campillo himself was a participant in ACT UP-Paris in his younger days, and the film’s easy jockeying between strategy and action would likely have been near impossible without his insider perspective.
BPM (originally called 120 battements par minute, after the average human heart rate) begins by plunging viewers directly into one of ACT UP’s protests, and gradually intercuts this with a heated discussion in the lecture hall in its aftermath; apparently this particular action, involving the handcuffing of a public health official to a lectern, went awry due to a miscue. It’s some time into the film before BPM begins to coalesce in stories of individuals as opposed to a group. For a while you might wonder if the film will be “about” stoic ginger group leader Thibault (Antoine Reinartz). Or perhaps fierce female ally Sophie (Adèle Haenel) will take the fore. Will the movie track the burgeoning romance between scrawny HIV-positive Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and handsome new member Nathan (Arnaud Valois), whose first kiss happens during a protest in an effort to shock an ignorant straight girl?
When the film does eventually settle into a narrower focus, on the progression of Sean and Nathan’s romance, it doesn’t feel like a cheapening of the panoply of characters and situations introduced at the film’s outset. As with his masterful Eastern Boys, which kept neatly transforming, from a darkly comic home invasion drama to a blistering romance between an older man and a younger boy to an actual thriller/pseudo-heist picture, without missing a step, you barely notice when Sean and Nathan take the fore, so gentle is Campillo’s touch. His panoramic view of ACT UP-Paris is never abandoned; he’s just gradually shifted the balance and emphasis of his narrative elements.
The first night Sean and Nathan spend in bed together is filled with conversation about their sexual histories, and the mechanics and ethics of an HIV-positive partner having sex with someone who hasn’t been infected. Their talk initially scans as somewhat didactic, an instance of a screenwriter putting his politics in his characters’ mouths, until it dawns that these considerations were, and still continue to be, regular precursors to intercourse between two men. This respectful, frank talk seems to turn off neither participant, nor the filmmaker who allows the scene to linger and build. Campillo integrates sex acts—a hand job in a hospital to a dying man, an unconsummated attempt in the room next to where a dead lover lays—throughout BPM. Even if the face of so much death, the members of ACT UP-Paris struggle to feel the pleasure of life.
At a handful of instances, BPM breaks to a dimly lit club where the ACT UP-Paris participants dance and sway to pounding four-on-the-floor club music, often in the wake of a successful act of protest. Bodies undulate in blue light, eyes closed; they could almost be zombies, if they weren’t so ecstatic (some are, in fact, on ecstasy). In several of these sequences, Campillo tilts his camera upward toward the flashing lights and racks focus to highlight the dust particles caught up in the glowing beams. Those particles then gradually morph into molecules circulating in space, coming apart and together, performing their own kind of dance. Cinema has so often been relegated to being a vehicle for the transmission of stories that moments like these, which track on pure sensation, are often excised. In Campillo we have a filmmaker easily able to bend narrative to his will, to make the act of telling stories with moving pictures fresh again, and who is also fascinated with the physical properties of his medium. It’s a potent mix.