BPM (Beats Per Minute) (2017)

Review #1,524

Director:  Robin Campillo
Cast:  Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adèle Haenel
Plot:  Members of the advocacy group ACT UP Paris demand action by the government and pharmaceutical companies to combat the AIDS epidemic in the early 1990s.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won Grand Jury Prize, FIPRESCI Prize, Queer Palm (Cannes)
Runtime:  140 mins
Rating:  R21 for sexual scenes and coarse language
International Sales:  Films Distribution

Movies about AIDS don’t come any more earnest than Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute).  The winner of the Grand Jury Prize and Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, this French offering, set in the early 1990s, centers on a large group of AIDS activists (who are suffering from the illness) that meet weekly to deliberate on their plans to spread awareness about the epidemic, and to hold the state and pharmaceutical companies accountable for their seeming non-action toward the health crisis.  

“ACT UP Paris”, as they are called, are serious about what they do, judging from the strict house rules that govern their fiery debates.  Opening with one such debate, Campillo introduces us to the faceless if passionate collective, and as the film goes on, we begin to be familiar with several faces.  And soon, we become very close to one person.  

His name is Sean, played with exquisite sensitivity by Argentinian actor Nahuel Perez Biscayart.  His story is the true heartbeat of the film, providing it with emotional resonance and nuance, while counter-balancing some of the film’s groovy moments.  Those moments, where the characters sashay to hip music or proudly chant their slogans, are inspired filmmaking, capturing the energy and the vitality of the cause.  

It is depressing, however, to know that most, if not all, won’t survive to see their endeavour succeed.  Running at nearly 2.5 hours long, BPM can feel protracted, and it is to the film’s disservice that the pacing doesn’t always work.  The use of flashbacks, while sometimes invigorating, does lose its intent after a while, prolonging some segments of the film.  

Similarly, a key sequence comprising of a series of no holds barred love-making scenes between Sean and his male partner overstays its welcome.  But the most head-scratching shot of all is a computer-generated one showing dying cells at a micro-cellular level that lasts what could be two ultra-long minutes.  All these show Campillo’s strength isn’t in editing for efficiency.

The best parts of BPM, however, center on intimate conversations that are set within larger socio-political debates.  Sean and his partner are usually in the heart of these private, soul-revealing moments, with Campillo zeroing in on them (by draining out the ambient sounds that surround them) and focusing on their dialogue, while we still get to see, however vaguely, what’s going around them.

Campillo repeats this technique a few times in the film to great effect.  Perhaps this is indicative of the overall feeling of seeing the film unfold—as the characters share heartrending moments with us, we also never lose sight of the big picture.

Verdict:  Inspired filmmaking but up to a point, this protracted AIDS drama’s best parts are when intimate conversations are set within larger socio-political debates.  





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