Film Body Politic

Harry Wind­sor on Robin Campillo’s ‘BPM’

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS -

As pe­riod pieces go, BPM (Beats Per Minute), the story of AIDS ac­tivists in Paris in the early 1990s, is light on the trim­mings. The jeans may be cut dif­fer­ently, and bomber jack­ets abound, but French-Moroc­can di­rec­tor Robin Campillo avoids the trap so many filmmakers, em­bold­ened by healthy bud­gets or sheer nos­tal­gia, fall into. Re­mem­ber how Tina Fey joked that the orig­i­nal ti­tle of Amer­i­can Hus­tle was “Ex­plo­sion at the Wig Fac­tory”? The mem­bers of ACT UP Paris fea­tured in BPM don’t look as though they’ve just bought their en­tire wardrobe off the rack. The evo­ca­tion of an era is sub­dued; it could al­most be now. What makes the dis­tance be­tween that time and this one so stark is the way in which out­raged words are di­rectly linked to ac­tion. There’s a cer­tain kind of con­tem­po­rary ac­tivism that, as Amer­i­can writer Re­becca Sol­nit has put it, “some­times seems to make the left the true heirs of the Pu­ri­tans. Pu­ri­tan­i­cal in that the point be­comes the demon­stra­tion of one’s own virtue rather than the re­al­i­sa­tion of re­sults.” In BPM, re­sults are a mat­ter of life or death, and there’s noth­ing pu­ri­tan­i­cal about its prin­ci­pal char­ac­ters: young gay men, women and haemophil­i­acs who gather once a week to plan di­rect ac­tions against the state or phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies. There’s a di­rect­ness to the way they dance and fuck and ar­gue, born of the knowl­edge that time is not un­lim­ited. Founded in New York in 1987 to fight bu­reau­cratic in­dif­fer­ence to the AIDS epi­demic, ACT UP emerged in Paris in 1989 (and in Aus­tralia the fol­low­ing year, with mem­bers stag­ing protests out­side the Amer­i­can con­sulate and even ab­seil­ing onto the floor of fed­eral par­lia­ment). Young ac­tivists bran­dished plac­ards at “die-ins” with the words “si­lence = death”. In an era when tele­vi­sion was para­mount, the group’s ac­tions were de­signed to make the nightly news. Campillo joined ACT UP Paris in 1992. A grad­u­ate of the pres­ti­gious film school now known as La Fémis, he would emerge at the end of that decade as an edi­tor and screen­writer, work­ing fre­quently with his class­mate Lau­rent Can­tet on films such as Time Out (2001) and the Palme d’Or–win­ning The Class (2008). But in 1992 he was a young man in­creas­ingly dis­il­lu­sioned with film­mak­ing in the face of the AIDS cri­sis. “I thought cinema was point­less,” he says. Campillo lost friends and lovers to the pan­demic. One of them – his first boyfriend, Ar­naud – is a ghostly pres­ence in the film, which is threaded with au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal de­tails as well as char­ac­ters and ac­tions loosely in­spired by his­tor­i­cal ones. In a mono­logue mid­way through BPM, Nathan (Ar­naud Valois), a new mem­ber of ACT UP and one of the few who isn’t HIV-pos­i­tive, shares a story ex­plic­itly taken from Campillo’s own life. Nathan tells his “poz” lover, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Bis­ca­yart, a dead ringer for Peter Lorre, only sexy), about his first boyfriend, Ar­naud. The two stopped sleep­ing to­gether as soon as the epi­demic hit, he says, only to re­unite years later. Nathan notices that Ar­naud is hav­ing trou­ble walk­ing, and sub­se­quently learns that he’s been ad­mit­ted to hos­pi­tal. Although Campillo pro­vided plenty of room for im­pro­vi­sa­tion dur­ing the shoot, this scene was iron­clad. “I did it the first day and I was chang­ing some words,” Valois re­calls. “Robin said, ‘We’re go­ing to do it to­mor­row, and you [should] re­learn your lines.’” Campillo wrote the screen­play with Philippe Man­geot, a fel­low ac­tivist whose fa­ther worked for the man­u­fac­tur­ers of AZT, the first pub­licly avail­able HIV/ AIDS drug. (Man­geot would ab­sent him­self when­ever ACT UP staged an ac­tion against his fa­ther’s com­pany, Bur­roughs Well­come, on which the film’s big pharma bo­gey­man, Mel­ton Pharm, is mod­elled.) The two worked on the script for the bet­ter part of a decade, re­ly­ing mostly on mem­ory. For Campillo, the writ­ing be­came a process of tab­u­la­tion. “I just wanted to un­der­stand. Not the mean­ing, be­cause that’s a lost cause. I just wanted to put things in per­spec­tive. It was like try­ing to struc­ture your own life.” What he’s come up with is a study in con­trasts. The film glides be­tween three worlds: the lec­ture hall where the group’s weekly meet­ings are held, the pub­lic ac­tions staged on the streets of Paris or at the of­fices of phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies, and the clubs where the ac­tivists go to dance the night away af­ter they’ve been re­leased from po­lice cus­tody. Though BPM is a true en­sem­ble piece, it also ze­roes in, even­tu­ally, on three char­ac­ters. There’s Nathan, sweet and shy and a tall drink of wa­ter, whose first ap­pear­ance elic­its wolf-whis­tles from his fel­low ac­tivists. There’s Thibault (An­toine Reinartz), ACT UP’s pres­i­dent – a head pre­fect–type. And sit­ting in the bleach­ers lob­bing grenades is the more rad­i­cal Sean, with whom Thibault fre­quently clashes. As be­fits the am­phithe­atre in which meet­ings are held, it’s about per­for­mance. “For many years I felt like I was an im­poster,” says Campillo, “be­cause I was feel­ing the fact that I was play­ing [a role], that it was a the­atri­cal thing to live your life.

“Per­son­ally,” the di­rec­tor says, “I love sex. I love film­ing sex. I have no prob­lem with that, and I think it’s very rel­e­vant.”

“We tend to see love as this pure thing,” says Bis­ca­yart. “Whereas of course ev­ery­thing is also a mat­ter of ne­ces­sity and con­ve­nience.”

This gen­er­ated the char­ac­ters, be­cause Sean is some­one who has been burn­ing him­self up in life, in the strug­gle against AIDS. When I was younger I was jeal­ous of this kind of guy, be­cause I was feel­ing re­mote from re­al­ity. I was more like Nathan, over-pro­tect­ing my­self from the dis­ease but also from life, from ev­ery­thing. I was look­ing at re­al­ity [from] be­hind the glass.” Valois hadn’t acted in a film for six years and was work­ing as a mas­sage ther­a­pist when he got the call from Campillo’s cast­ing di­rec­tors, while the Ar­gen­tinian Bis­ca­yart only learnt French, re­mark­ably, six years ago. Nei­ther knew much about ACT UP, but swot­ted by read­ing a his­tory of the move­ment by Di­dier Lestrade, the co-founder of ACT UP Paris (and a clear model for the char­ac­ter of Thibault). Bis­ca­yart watched doc­u­men­taries on Cleews Vel­lay, the fire­brand mem­ber of ACT UP Paris who was pres­i­dent from 1992 un­til his death in 1994 at the age of 30. In au­di­tions Valois and Bis­ca­yart ran through the film’s cen­tre­piece sex scene, in which Nathan and Sean talk about the dis­ease and past lovers, the two in­ex­tri­ca­ble. “At the be­gin­ning it was about cre­at­ing an in­ti­macy,” says Valois. “We had two cast­ing ses­sions to­gether and we clicked by the sec­ond one. By touch­ing. We were bare-chested, and we could feel that there was some­thing hap­pen­ing. You’re con­di­tion­ing your­self to be in a cou­ple with some­one for two-and-a-half months. It’s about spend­ing time with some­one, talk­ing about any­thing – per­sonal life, hob­bies, dreams, night­mares – to cre­ate some­thing that’s maybe ar­ti­fi­cial but that can ap­pear real.” Over three days of group re­hearsals, Man­geot talked to the en­tire cast about his time in ACT UP. “Philippe gave us a lec­ture on that time in [the] first per­son, us­ing present tense, and ev­ery­body was com­pletely moved,” says Bis­ca­yart. “He talked about very big po­lit­i­cal is­sues and also about very small de­tails, like what it was like to bend a dead body when you had to dress it up. All those de­tails that in­habit your body in a very spe­cific way. It’s hard to imag­ine how those guys and girls lived back then, bury­ing friends, lovers. I can’t even get close to that.” Though it brought hard-nosed jour­nal­ists (not to men­tion jury chair Pe­dro Almod­ó­var) to tears at Cannes, where it won the Grand Prix last year, the film is clear-eyed rather than sen­ti­men­tal. Sean and Nathan’s bur­geon­ing re­la­tion­ship doesn’t re­ally emerge un­til mid­way through, and BPM isn’t afraid to present it as one of con­ve­nience that’s also deeply felt. “We tend to see love as this pure thing,” says Bis­ca­yart. “Whereas of course ev­ery­thing is also a mat­ter of ne­ces­sity and con­ve­nience. In this case, maybe if the sick­ness wasn’t there the love story would just have been a lit­tle fling.” Campillo’s pre­vi­ous film, Eastern Boys (2013), like­wise ex­plored a re­la­tion­ship nei­ther trans­ac­tional nor wholly equal, one in which sex speaks vol­umes. “Per­son­ally,” the di­rec­tor says, “I love sex. I love film­ing sex. I have no prob­lem with that, and I think it’s very rel­e­vant.” Like Nathan, Campillo never vis­ited Ar­naud, his first boyfriend, in hos­pi­tal, and still misses him. “I don’t miss him be­cause of our dis­cus­sions. I miss him be­cause I loved to have sex with him. I’m so sorry we can’t have sex any­more. That’s the main thing. It’s not a small thing. It’s a po­lit­i­cal thing. When you miss some­one you miss his skin, his smell. I don’t make sex scenes to shock the bour­geoisie. I do it be­cause I like it. It’s con­nected to a be­lief in sex as some­thing which is very cru­cial.” BPM opens with mem­bers of the group hud­dled in the wings of a con­fer­ence hall, whis­tles in mouths, about to storm a stage. This “zap”, against the gov­ern­ment agency set up to deal with the cri­sis, is in­ter­cut with ACT UP’s sub­se­quent meet­ing, in which the par­tic­i­pants dis­cuss how the ac­tion played out. So­phie (Adèle Haenel) is con­vinced they went too far by re­strain­ing the speaker and splat­ter­ing him with fake blood. Sean is hav­ing none of it. The gov­ern­ment agency’s pub­lic health cam­paigns are so ab­stract you’d hardly know the dis­ease was sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted, he says, and the en­tire or­gan­i­sa­tion is noth­ing but a cover: a way for the gov­ern­ment to shift ac­count­abil­ity. Campillo based the se­quence on a real-life ac­tion that tar­geted those re­spon­si­ble for the transfusion scan­dal, in which in­fected blood was given to haemophil­i­acs. But the ac­tion and the in­ter­nal de­bate it pro­voked also re­call the storm­ing of New York’s St Pa­trick’s Cathe­dral in 1989. In an oral his­tory of ACT UP New York, the group’s founder, Larry Kramer, re­mem­bered the re­sponse. “Ev­ery­body was ter­ri­fied af­ter it, be­cause it had been in the pa­per and every edi­to­rial page in town had dumped on us. Peo­ple were scared, and I re­mem­ber say­ing, ‘Are you crazy? Are you crazy? They’re afraid of us now! That’s the best thing that could have hap­pened to us!’” When­ever Sean and Thibault col­lide, the film be­comes as much a study in ac­tivist tac­tics as it is a ro­mance. “For Thibault, the ex­is­tence of Sean is very healthy for the group,” says Bis­ca­yart. “Be­cause he was the one who at some points was push­ing harder for things to ad­vance.” The im­por­tance of ne­go­ti­a­tion and protest rather than one or the other was a les­son Kramer brought to ACT UP from his time in the movie busi­ness, work­ing in Lon­don in the 1960s (where he wrote Ken Rus­sell’s Women in Love, the one with Oliver Reed and Alan Bates wrestling in the nude). Ac­cord­ing to Kramer, that’s how every suc­cess­ful com­pany, of any kind, re­ally works. “You’ve got a

shit ex­ec­u­tive, who fires ev­ery­body, or cuts ev­ery­body’s bud­get. And you’ve got a saint ex­ec­u­tive, who keeps ev­ery­body happy. And don’t think they don’t talk to each other, at the end of the day, to com­pare notes.” In ACT UP, “the bad cops were all the kids on the floor, and the good cops were all the peo­ple in­side do­ing the ne­go­ti­at­ing”. For the au­di­to­rium scenes, Campillo and his cin­e­matog­ra­pher, Jeanne Lapoirie, shot scenes from start to fin­ish with mul­ti­ple cam­eras fit­ted with zoom lenses. The di­rec­tor felt lib­er­ated from what he calls the “frame-con­trol fetish” that char­ac­terised his de­but, 2004’s They Came Back, and BPM is al­to­gether looser, al­most doc­u­men­tary­like – though its tran­si­tions are any­thing but. Campillo co-edited the film, and BPM is de­fined by the flu­id­ity with which it moves from one space to the next, what he calls “worm­holes be­tween di­men­sions”. Dust motes in a club dis­solve into plasma; Sean and Nathan go from dance floor to bed with­out a de­fin­i­tive cut; the ghosts of for­mer lovers ap­pear in the mid­dle of a sex scene. “I love the idea that cinema is very im­pure. You can have very raw, re­al­is­tic ma­te­rial, but it’s gen­er­ated in a ma­chine which is more com­plex. If you put mice in a lab­o­ra­tory, mice are very re­al­is­tic. But the struc­ture they are liv­ing in is ab­so­lutely not.” Campillo likens the film to a ro­man-fleuve, a “river novel”, one that flows through his­to­ries. In its most haunt­ing se­quence he con­jures an ac­tion ACT UP planned but never ex­e­cuted, dye­ing the Seine blood red. The im­por­tance of phys­i­cal pres­ence, ap­pear­ing in flesh and blood to make an “in­vis­i­ble war” vis­i­ble, is cen­tral to BPM. “This is what a per­son with AIDS looks like!” shouts Sean, storm­ing Mel­ton Pharm’s of­fice to protest its fail­ure to re­lease lab re­sults. The ten­sion be­tween him and Thibault springs, above all, from the de­gree to which each is em­body­ing the strug­gle – from an im­bal­ance in ur­gency. Thibault might be HIV-pos­i­tive, but he’s not dy­ing. One woozy slow-mo­tion shot even sees him wa­ter­ing his gar­den, in­vest­ing in a fu­ture that Sean will never see. “When you’re talk­ing about a dis­ease, it’s your body which is at stake,” says the di­rec­tor. “So it be­comes po­lit­i­cally some­thing that is elec­tri­fy­ing, burn­ing. And it cre­ates a re­la­tion­ship to time that is very dif­fer­ent.” The film was shot in se­quence to al­low Bis­ca­yart to lose weight as the pro­duc­tion went on. “It doesn’t re­ally show in the film,” he says, “but at the time my friends were so afraid.” Early on Sean leads a group of pom­pomwield­ing cheer­lead­ers at the an­nual pride march. But as he de­clines, his sense of theatri­cal­ity dis­ap­pears. At the pride march the fol­low­ing year, he’s barely there, a man with a thou­sand-yard stare. “The emo­tion that you see in the char­ac­ter comes from the fact that his body no longer has a place in so­ci­ety,” says Bis­ca­yart. The ac­tor worked with Campillo on peel­ing away Sean’s sense of play, leav­ing a body that is less flam­boy­ant but, cru­cially, just as in­hab­ited. “We don’t see the phys­i­cal move­ment and that in­ten­sity, but the body is ab­so­lutely vi­brat­ing and shak­ing with the idea that it’s no longer go­ing to in­habit the world.” The clos­est Sean can get to an ac­tion is watch­ing his friends on tele­vi­sion from his hos­pi­tal bed, and the power of the film’s fi­nal act is the sense of lone­li­ness it con­veys. The with­drawal from a com­mu­nity that was all-con­sum­ing, what Campillo has de­scribed as the “tun­nel of soli­tude”. But BPM’s fi­nal scene bridges his iso­la­tion, with Sean’s friends and lovers tak­ing him with them on an ac­tion. As the mem­bers of ACT UP shout and point at a star­tled gath­er­ing of in­sur­ance reps, the lights switch to stro­bo­scopic, as if they’re back in the club. Bod­ies flail­ing in dark­ness, bod­ies merged into one. Campillo is nos­tal­gic for clubs, which re­mind him of cin­e­mas. “These dark places with light phe­nom­ena on the screen or around us, where we are all alone to­gether.” BPM is screen­ing at the Al­liance Française French Film Fes­ti­val and then in lim­ited na­tional re­lease.

Campillo is nos­tal­gic for clubs, which re­mind him of cin­e­mas.

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