In BPM (Beats Per Minute), writer-director Robin Campillo exposes France’s lack of action during the HIV and AIDS crisis, taking us on a heart-rending journey with an activist group that raises hell.
Set in 1990s France, Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute), also known as 120 BPM, sees Nathan (Arnaud Valois), one of the many volunteers who attends an Act-Up Paris’ weekly meeting, recount his promiscuous sexual history to another member before he mentions a tragic experience that changed his way of life. “I’d never seen a gay couple in a magazine before”, he says. “Except it was to say that homosexuals were going to die. That we were all going to die”. From Jean-Marc Vallée’s emotionally staggering drama Dallas Buyers Club and Jonathan Demme’s impassioned and moving film Philadelphia to TV series like Pose and It’s A Sin, many filmmakers have successfully explored the solemn history of the AIDS crisis as not only a political issue, but also a social one, sparking a much-needed reminder that, when it comes to HIV and AIDS, silence equals death. But what makes all these films and shows resonate so strongly with their audience is not just the nature of the themes they explore, but also their willingness to fight for what’s just in an ignorant society.
Hailing praise from legendary directors such as Barry Jenkins and Pedro Almodóvar, Beats Per Minute won the Grand Pix at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, where the powerful and breathtaking nature of this work of art was recognized. Originating from the director’s personal experience, the film revolves around Act-Up Paris (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power), an activist group formed from fear, frustration, and helplessness that not only challenged the status quo of how the French government handled the AIDS epidemic, but also changed the way medical research was conducted in regards to treatment. In this film, Campillo presents the audience with a political perspective of this dilemma, but he is also careful to cast the crisis as a social epidemic, gradually shifting the focus of the film to two members, Nathan and Sean (Nahuel Biscayart), who are both personally affected by this epidemic, and yet, do everything in their power to speak out and fight for change.
The motivation and purpose behind this film is not to demonstrate a small, overlooked, political movement like a documentary would normally do, but to bring a silent and afflictive past full of desperation, hopelessness, and panic into the present, as a reminder that this epidemic is still ongoing and affecting thousands of lives per year. Beats Per Minute is full of raw emotion, as Campillo feels it necessary to bring this message of injustice and silence to the forefront of the film.
So, how did the world react to the AIDS epidemic? The French government was silent, failing to provide both the adequate resources to make people aware of the issue, and accessible protection to those wanting to engage in sexual activities, as well as those who would have simply liked to know more about the epidemic. Melton Pharm, a pharmaceutical company that created a groundbreaking drug to help those affected by HIV, was also silent: the company took its time to share its drug trial results, even though many people affected by the virus were slowly dying and needed immediate treatment. In the film, the director explores these injustices that ravaged not only the LGBTQ community, but prostitutes and drug users alike, and ultimately gave rise to Act-Up Paris, an instigator for change and a voice for the voiceless.
From the beginning, the audience is placed into one of Act-Up’s introductory meetings for new recruits, where the attendees discuss the meeting’s rules, the group’s campaigns, and upcoming protests. Over the course of the movie, several protests are staged: for example, Act-Up Paris storms Melton Pharm with balloons full of fake blood, demanding results as their sluggish pace is costing the lives of those affected by the virus. In addition, the group spreads awareness of HIV and AIDS to high school students, explaining the importance of wearing protection and getting frequently tested, and, more importantly, making sure these exploring teenagers are aware of the facts by clarifying any misconceptions about the virus, since Act-Up Paris believes that the government is not doing an adequate job. Though the demonstrations that Campillo includes in his film are powerful and politically motivated, it proves that Act-Up will not stay silent and continue to fight. For many members, however; this battle for justice is far more than just political, it’s personal.
Though Beats Per Minute is a political film that sheds light on how silence and ignorance lead to the rise in deaths due to AIDS, there still is beauty in this movie, as the director explores the theme of personal tragedy through the eyes of Nathan and Sean, two members of the organization. The realness of their emotions and thoughts turns Beats Per Minute into a heartbreaking drama that resonates even more with the audience now, as they, too, may know what it feels like when a loved one is in pain and their journey in life is about to come to an end.
Despite the harrowing circumstances that surround Nathan and Sean’s relationship, Campillo explores other essential aspects of their life, such as the conversations they have, the dancing, and the sex – all contributing to the beauty and intimacy of their bond. These aspects are essential, as they make up the essence of their relationship, demonstrating that this is the life they want to live, this is the life they deserve, this is the life they are fighting for. Many believe that the virus consumes a person’s entire life, but, while Beats Per Minute does not shy away from making us uncomfortable, it also chooses to focus on the beauty of their relationship. When the film shows the audience intimate sex scenes and stress relieving dance parties, it demonstrates that Nathan, Sean, and the LBGTQ community are not defined by AIDS or their HIV status, but by their attitude, and by how they decide to conduct their life.
At the heart of every protest are grievances that makes society reflect on their mistakes and their discriminations, but when a government and the majority of a country’s population decide to ignore these abuses, the cost of this ignorance is life. In BPM (Beats Per Minute), Campillo skillfully manages to find the balance between the political and social issues of the AIDS epidemic by placing Act-Up Paris’ controversial, yet effective, protests at the forefront of the film. To further assert his claim, the director extends his argument of oppression with a tender and tragic romance that leaves the audience heartbroken and in anger, leaving an eerie reminder, even long after the film is over, that silence equals death.