I went into BPM, a 2.5 Hour drama about homosexual AIDS activists in 1990s France, expecting to spend the entire time either cringing at a message-only, non-cinematic melodrama, or worse, being launched into a depression from having witnessed a parade of impeccably crafted tragedy.
Well, the second assessment is certainly closer to the truth, but it’s still inaccurate. BPM is indeed impeccably crafted, but instead of emerging depressed, I found my reaction to be one of hope. Of inspiration. Yes, the film has moments of unrelenting sadness, but it’s handled so well, without an ounce of preachiness (the Hidden Figures effect), that one can’t help but be enveloped in it. And really, that’s the only way to bring an outsider into something so specific: by allowing him or her to experience it firsthand.
One thing is for sure: BPM is a stone cold masterpiece. Certainly one of the best films of the year, and, at least in my limited scope, the best movie about the AIDS crisis ever made.
The film follows ACT UP, an activist group whose broad goal is to bring social and governmental urgency to addressing the groups hit hardest by HIV and AIDS, namely homosexuals, addicts, and the homeless. Their weekly meetings have a strict code of conduct: take turns to speak, use snaps to show support of an idea instead of claps, and absolutely no discussion of action related topics outside of the central meeting space. Most importantly, no matter what your actual status, if any outsiders ask, you must claim to be ‘poz.’ This, of course, is a colloquialism meaning ‘HIV positive.’
The idea is to put the disease on exhibit and show the masses that a sufferer can look like anybody, and moreover, still function just as well as anyone else if given proper treatment. It’s notable too that short of our central players, we are never told who is and isn’t poz. It simply does not matter. ACT UP, like the Justice League, are all in.
Within this larger framework (there’s a LOT of movie here), a romance blossoms between Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and Nathan (Arnaud Valois). The coupling begins somewhat turbulently given that Sean is poz and Nathan is not. Nonetheless, their mutual feelings blossom into a lovely, if cautious affair. It’s an all-time great on-screen romance, and BPM classily chooses not to lean into the potential novelty of it being a homosexual relationship. In this respect, it’s very similar to Moonlight. Both films bring a marginalized culture to the big screen without professing to a niche market.
As Sean’s health declines and ACT UP continues to race against its members’ certain fates, it becomes clear how strong every performer is. Biscayart embodies Sean, and his physical transformation is documentary real. Kudos to the actor for keeping Sean’s internal flame alive, even as his physical self deteriorates.
BPM is rich with cinema, depicting multiple difficult moments with a frank clarity that becomes its own style. These images serve to create in the viewer precisely what the ACT UP workers hoped to inspire in their targets. Other moments dip into muted abstraction. For example, one sequence begins as a strobe-lit, moody dance club party, and then seamlessly transforms into a microscopic depiction of white blood cells simply existing. The suggestion being that in the absence of our internal defenses, the responsibility to fight a disease is inherited by the body – the person – as a whole. It’s pure filmmaking panache used to its fullest effect.
One smaller aspect of BPM proves relevant to the present day and adds to the richness of the film. I’m speaking of the identity crisis which faces many activist groups. At what point does activism go too far? When does promoting awareness turn into vengeance in the name of the activists’ emotional catharsis? Basically, it’s the “punching Nazis” argument of today, but without think-pieces. Instead we get to explore the nature of desperation, and how it can either cloud or refine the logic of its beholder. There’s no judgment in this exploration, only an honest look into a terrifying reality — just what does one do when out of options as an individual? How can one make peace with martyrdom for a cause where martyrs are classically ignored?
It’s heavy stuff, but BPM is so imbued with real emotion — with genuine joy to balance out the pain — that it’s a cinematic burden worth lifting.
BPM opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.