120 BPM. The average heart rate. The protagonists of 120 Battements Par Minute are passionate about fighting the indifference that exists towards AIDS.
French filmmaker Robin Campillo has a penchant for lengthy running times. One could also describe his aesthetic as Dardenne-esque (sans the Belgian siblings’ in-your-face grimness and keen sense of spiritual enlightenment). Campillo’s features hold a dark (though not quite black) mirror to our society. The 134-minute “Time Out,” which he wrote, focused on an unemployed man desperate to hide his status from loved ones, fearing inadequacy and shunning. Campillo’s directorial debut, “They Came Back,” twisted horror conventions, turning “the zombie film” into an exploration of time, change, familial relationships and humanity’s continuously shifting values (as well as spawning a French TV spin-off, which led to the A&E remake, “The Returned”). Cannes darling “The Class” – scribbled by Robin and running at over two ponderous hours – revolved around a classroom of eager but underprivileged students, and a teacher desperate to organize chaos. “Eastern Boys,” with its epic 130-minute length, examined homosexuality, gangs, prostitution, and immigration. With a minimum of stylistic flourishes, Campillo’s films take their time to develop and lure us into relatable worlds of familiar characters overcoming hardship and struggling to fit in.
True to form, Campillo now brings us another 140-minute study of fighting injustice, its title, “BPM,” reflecting humanity’s collective heartbeat. This time the setting is the early 1990s, and the subject is ACT UP, the confrontational movement of young people – mostly consisting of HIV-positive gay men – who committed a variety of shocking, inflammatory acts to bring attention to the AIDS epidemic. Purposefully avoiding incendiary drama or heart-pounding action, Campillo’s focal point is the everyday lives of the protestors, their debates and passions and fears. The result is a powerful story about fighting injustice – arguably Campillo’s best effort yet.
The film opens with ACT UP’s scheduled Tuesday meeting, during which they argue over a particularly violent publicity stunt that got out of hand (involving a politician and a balloon filled with fake blood). Segregation and major disagreements flare up within the faction. When ACT UP invades the offices of a pharmaceutical company, the HIV-positive members group together in the elevator – the rest take the stairs. A potential new treatment method raises a heated debate about its efficiency, the unproven drug potentially eclipsing established (albeit ineffective) treatment methods. Campillo takes his time pulling us into their world, slyly narrowing the focus on the film’s two protagonists: Sean Dalmazo (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, resembling a young Vincent Cassel) and Nathan (Arnaud Valois).
The director observes, never judging, allowing us to question ACT UP’s sometimes-horrific methods of conveying their message. Smearing unsuspecting employees in fake blood while blaring horns and tearing up their offices could be seen as a bit, well, extreme. Yet it’s not all guerrilla warfare. ACT UP is led by well-spoken, clear-minded individuals that hold their own at meetings with corporate bigwigs about, say, the futility of lengthy, painful, lymph-node-puncturing trials. That said, most of the protestors are kids, raucous young men and women who want to live their short lives to the fullest, partying in clubs to the sounds of early rave music. (One such hallucinatory clubbing sequence morphs into a virtual depiction of a T-cell being destroyed by HIV.) Despite the stink of death lingering in their nostrils, they joke about how much their photographer bends when he takes photos, jab each other, fall in love… There is a highly tender, prolonged lovemaking sequence between Sean and Nathan, with them sharing their innermost secrets and insecurities with each other, that’s as frank and realistic a depiction of sex as I’ve seen in a while in cinema – gay or straight.
There are also unexpected lyrical interludes, such as the bitter and vivacious Sean looking out a train window, marveling at the stunning mandarin sky hanging over the city, its eternal vastness a stark contrast to Sean’s own ephemeral existence. Another young man collapses unexpectedly during a meeting, his condition deteriorating at an accelerated pace – a powerfully poignant moment in a heartrending but never manipulative character arc. The film really picks up in its final hour, with a tighter focus on Sean’s own tragic trajectory, Nathan by his side, the actor’s soulful eyes conveying every emotion, beat by beat. Biscayart better clear that shelf for some major awards coming his way.
Searingly affecting, with minimal music cues letting us know how to feel, “BPM” is a sobering look at the lives of the ignored, by turns tragic and joyous. More importantly, it (for the most part) avoids the languid pratfalls of the director’s previous lengthy efforts. Unraveling gracefully, gradually, “BPM” will wedge itself into your consciousness, beat by beat.
Now playing in select theaters