BPM (Beats Per Minute): Every Second Counts, by Scott Nye
BPM (Beats Per Minute) is a drama set at a crucial point in social history, but it is not precisely a social drama. In crafting a semi-autobiographical portrait of ACT UP Paris as they attempt to bring visibility to AIDS research (or lack thereof) in the early 1990s, writer/director Robin Campillo doesn’t assume he needs to do any proselytizing. He’s more into the experience of what it felt like to be there. ACT UP’s methods range from handing out fliers to smearing the offices of pharmaceutical companies with fake blood, and the film never gets into whatever results these actions spur. It’s just about a group of kids, drawn together by sexuality, passion, societal stigma, and desperation trying to be heard before it’s too late.
Though mostly an ensemble film, it centers somewhat around Nathan (Arnaud Valois), who has recently joined ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power)and serves the purpose of asking questions or being explained to various ins and outs of the group’s mission and methods. If he is consequently not the most dynamic character, he is more than complemented by Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a flamboyant, HIV-positive extrovert with whom he quickly becomes involved. But Sean’s health is worse than his spirit lets on. Among the many tragedies BPM explores within the AIDS crisis is how quickly young people had to go from lover to caretaker.
Among its many victories, though, was the camaraderie, and one quickly realizes how absolutely dedicated everyone in the group is to the cause and each other. No one’s getting paid to be in ACT UP. They meet weekly at night so people can go to work. Some are already in professions (one’s the mother of a teenger with AIDS), others are basically unemployed, but all are willing and able to set everything aside for the slightest need another might have. This does not come without friction. Just as now we see vast disagreements over how to move forward in political parties, the ACT UP meetings are just as much about hashing through a problem as they are outlining solutions. Everyone comes in with an opinion on how to get the work done, and a recurring theme finds the moderator emphasizing how totally off-schedule they are.
You also find that France was far from unified in how it felt about ACT UP. The usual social drama technique is to amplify aggression to make clear the forces our heroes face. BPM gives a more nuanced impression. One scene finds the group interrupting high school classes to give a lesson on the importance of proper condom use. Some teachers try to throw them out; others insist their class pay attention. Some people practically spit at them on the street, others are eager to hear their message. Again, by taking the focus away from results, and looking purely at the work, Campillo provides a more unusual vision of social drama.
His last film, 2013’s Eastern Boys, charts a gay relationship that started with something nearer to prostitution and ends with a distressed rescue sequence. BPM is not quite so fluid in its genre, but it doesn’t take a typical structure either, happy to head down one road, then scamper back towards another, and so on. The film does start to become more and more about Nathan and Sean, but for however dedicated the former is to the latter, it’s also pretty clear that caring for someone in a health crisis is miles away from actually going through it. Nathan can still live his life, participate in ACT UP, and go to work. Sean is just stuck on his own or in the company of well-wishers and nurses.
More than anything, though, BPM captures the chaos of life in general, but especially how it feels in youth, how ephemeral and impermanent every aspect of one’s life is. Most of us have the advantage of casually taking pleasure in these fleeting moments, but for most of these kids, it’s fleeting because their friends are dying. The clock is permanently ticking down and for all their desperation, they may not be able to stop it in time. BPM is remarkably clear-eyed about how one comes to cope with that threat, and pleasure is a big part of it.