Deeply moving AIDS tale maintains a quick and steady heartbeat
THERE’S barely an ounce of flab on this muscular tale of sex, (antiretroviral) drugs and activism.
As its title suggests, BPM, aka 120 BPM (the basic disco tempo is approximately 120 beats per minute), maintains a quick and steady pulse.
Set in the early 1990s, it follows the story of a dozen or so core members of Act Up Paris as they plan and execute a number of actions, ranging from leaflet bombing high school students with safe sex information to turning the Seine blood red (sadly, this last one is a filmmakers’ fantasy).
Some of the group’s political interventions misfire absurdly. Others — the ash- scattering finale, for example — prove extremely potent.
Regardless, there’s something very vital and life affirming about the characters’ well-organised protest — director Robin Campillo has somehow channelled the crystalline focus that often comes to a person when they know their time is finite (in the era in which these events occur, an HIV diagnosis was pretty much a death sentence.)
The tension in the story comes not from Act Up’s encounters with the authorities or police, but in the ideological battles that play out between the characters during the group’s weekly meetings, where debate is lively, often fierce.
Although BPM is set in a very particular time and place, the story feels surprisingly contemporary.
Perhaps that’s because there isn’t a whisper of sentimentality or nostalgia in Campillo’s clear-eyed view of the game-changing moment in history of which he was a part. The director has fictionalised his own experiences for the film.
BPM feels very much like an insider’s account, but one that has been distilled and clarified by distance. The emotions, while raw, are powerfully restrained.
BPM is not simply a love story — though an affecting romance lies at its heart.
Nor is it merely a procedural account of grassroots activism — even though the characters’ energy, discipline and organisation is truly inspiring.
Campillo weaves both these elements into a larger, more complex narrative that gives just as much weight to the glorious scrappiness of life as it does to the inevitable tragedy of death.
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French actor Arnaud Valois in a scene from BPM.