Armed, as usual, with spittable slogans and water balloons filled with fake blood, protesters storm into the Paris office of a pharmaceutical giant. They politely introduce themselves to receptionists and seem genuinely hurt when the police are called. They overstuff elevators and stairwells as they make their way to their target: a group of well-heeled researchers who won’t release information from clinical trials that may benefit people with AIDS. Then the yelling begins, and the blood flows.
This is an ACT UP protest in Paris in the early 1990s, inherited from their American brothers-and-sisters-in-arms a couple years before: loud, messy, self-consciously furious. As depicted by writer-director Robin Campillo’s sensational new drama BPM (Beats Per Minute), it’s also a tender and seriocomic study of activism’s human frailty. One balloon accidentally snaps, slathering a humbled protester in red; nervous jokes are misread by new members; shouted reminders not to fight back against the riot police often go unheeded. Even in urgently directed set pieces like this, Campillo derives all his tension from these tossed-off details, constructing a complicated portrait of people who are trying—and often failing—to figure out how to survive.
BPM uses these small moments to forge a devastating intimacy with the ACT UP protesters. We meet the fictionalized activists through long build-up sequences that might, at first, strike some viewers as affectless. The camera idles as the group holds town-hall meetings in the evenings in a nondescript classroom, where they flirt, obsessively debate their recent protests, and brainstorm those slogans. They snap their fingers to signal support for their respective factions. Campillo makes active use of the space, but really, these extended sequences are about conflicting minds at work, and he spares us no disagreement or askew glance. It’s not uncommon for a debate to be followed by a debate about the debate.
Slowly, through these procedural exchanges, we get to know the members away from the collective. One focus is Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a brash, young HIV-positive man. He and a quiet new member, Nathan (Arnaud Valois), will become lovers. Among the frequently exasperated leaders are Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), Sophie (Adèle Haenel), and a middle-aged mother, Hélène (Catherine Vinatier), who joined the group after her teenage son was diagnosed. Their shifting and uneasy relationships provide the backbone that eventually materializes into their acts of protest, which Campillo stages with a brilliant, ebullient flourish: As the movie shows the group carrying out their methodical plans, flaws and all, it also repeatedly cuts to them dancing together in a bejeweled nightclub—a dose of pure joy that underscores what they’re fighting, and mostly failing, to protect.
If the cinema of AIDS has produced some great movies, it’s also tended toward stilted formality—respectable issue movies—or a kind of funereal detachment designed to summon the plague’s horrors. BPM insistently rejects both, most movingly in the tentative romance between Nathan and Sean. It begins with flirtation at the town halls and then, one night after dancing, blooms into anxious fumbling over condoms and traded blow jobs. At first, it might be tempting to reduce the men to types—Nathan, stoic and HIV negative; Sean, flamboyant and positive—and the movie could have slipped into a familiar grim narrative of one lover watching another waste away. Campillo avoids that by bringing us into the ecstasy of the men’s relationship, most pointedly through bracingly frank sex scenes. They’re explicit, funny, and ultimately heartbreaking. One involves a hand job in a hospital bed that might be the most erotic thing I have seen in a mainstream movie. Campillo’s actors, especially Biscayart and Valois, give themselves completely to the film, and their chemistry is profound. The sexual and romantic energy proves to be an essential counterweight to the group’s visceral tactics, a refusal to capitulate to the ravages of the disease.
Eventually, when BPM does arrive at the realities of the couple’s fate, it becomes a movie about how a community responds to the unimaginable—in this case, with more messiness, sex, and debates about the best political use of someone’s cremated remains. The film is admirably clear-eyed in these moments, but you will not be. Because of its deliberate slow-building structure, BPM sneaks up on you, inundating with detail and method until it all piles up and topples you over. Yet even in despair, the movie is emotionally transformative. Campillo has taken his own experience as an ACT UP organizer and turned it into the best kind of cinematic memoir, a cathartic invocation of a lost moment. And he’s not above a little wish fulfillment. In one sequence, the camera glides over the Seine to show that ACT UP activists have turned it blood red, a feat that, in real life, the group never quite figured out how to pull off. But in Campillo’s retelling, it feels true.