When people talk about activism, a topic of renewed relevance in our charged political now, they often point to the 1960s as a definitive golden age. But anyone seeking a historical model for taking to the streets—a real-life lesson in how organized protest can and should operate—might also look to a different but no-less-urgent time: the late ’80s and early ’90s, when a community ravaged by a terrible disease took matters into its own hands. With the sprawling BPM (Beats Per Minute), writer-director Robin Campillo flashes back to the height of the AIDS crisis, following a group of civilians as they battle for their lives, against government indifference, and sometimes with each other. It’s a gripping portrait of boots-on-the-ground activism, at least so long as it keeps the focus squarely trained on the actual activism.
BPM looks back specifically on the Parisian wing of ACT UP, a.k.a. AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, the direct-action advocacy group that grew out of New York’s LGBTQ community in 1987, in response to a rising death toll and an institutional failure to address it fast enough. Campillo was a member of the group in the early ’90s, but he brings more than just the ache of personal experience to this fictionalized account. The filmmaker also revives a gift, honed in the docudrama The Class (which he co-wrote for Laurent Cantet), for capturing chaotic group debate—for sticking a bunch of characters in a room and letting them bounce perspectives off each other. Much of BPM also takes place in a classroom: a college lecture hall where the film’s diverse ensemble of activists—men and women, gay and straight, mostly young—regularly meet to plan demonstrations, debate strategy, and brainstorm slogans. Locationally and structurally, it becomes a hub; Campillo will return to it again and again, sometimes crosscutting between the planning and the execution of an event.
BPM weaves stirring spectacle from the group’s nonviolent protests, like a gate-jumping confrontation at a pharmaceutical company that’s been concealing the results of its studies. But Campillo never simplifies the complicated, sometimes conflicting politics of his characters to create the uplifting illusion of total unity. His script, co-authored with Philippe Mangeot, doesn’t just remind that ACT UP sometimes broke with parallel organizations like the Paris-based AIDES. It also identifies ideological splits within the ranks, dividing its ensemble into factions of at-odds personalities. Level-headed leader Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) emerges quickly as a voice of diplomacy, arguing constantly for the virtues of not alienating allies or the targets of their awareness campaigns. He spars often with founding member Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a rebellious and charismatic “back-row radical.” If Sean pushes for a more extreme approach, it’s partially because, as one of the group’s HIV-positive members, he doesn’t have the time to spare on half measures.
The film opens with discussion of a publicity stunt gone wrong or right, depending on who’s asked: a planned interruption of a speech that culminates with the chairman at the podium being pelted with a water balloon filled with fake blood. Do these kind of guerrilla, confrontational tactics damage the public image of an organization that needs all the support it can get? Or is any publicity good publicity in a situation where silence equals death? BPM constantly puts such questions up for debate, acknowledging frequent differences in opinion—and divisions of agenda—in what is essentially a war for hearts, minds, and visibility. There’s the challenge of imparting the danger of the epidemic during Pride Week, when many of those at risk might hear the message but also reject it as gloom-and-doom scare tactics. The positive (or “poz”) activists reject calls to investigate vaccines; they don’t have the luxury of thinking about prevention anymore. And while part of ACT UP’s effectiveness stemmed from its members educating themselves on the virus, that doesn’t stop some of them from dismissing a lecture on the science of a controversial medication as misleading advertising for the same.
What Campillo is offering, basically, is a dramatized, Gallic companion piece to David France’s terrific documentary How To Survive A Plague, which used archival footage to retell the history of ACT UP. So long as Campillo is sticking to the nitty-gritty of his characters’ work, building a procedural out of the nuts and bolts of activism, BPM enthralls. It’s the dramatizing that proves a little less revelatory. The film eventually develops a sweet, hesitant romance between Sean, whose health begins to decline, and a kind of audience surrogate, new recruit Nathan (Arnaud Valois, who looks a bit like Denis Lavant’s hunkier younger brother). These scenes are truthful and sensitively performed—the two actors have an easy chemistry—but they’re also more generic, and much less specific, than the moments when everyone’s gathered together in a room, advocating for the right path of advocacy. (Campillo, who’s more known for his screenwriting than his direction, also has a weakness for hazy transitional montages of the characters dancing the night away—a device that feels like filler in a two-and-a-half-hour movie that doesn’t need it.)
Of course, the love story makes sense—it personalizes the crisis, in the exact way that it was personal for a lot of ACT UP, fighting for their own lives and those of their friends and family. If BPM strays a little too far from what makes it so interesting—if it assumes we need a conventional reason to invest in these tireless rabble-rousers, beyond the thrill of seeing them try to make a difference—there’s still a poignant integrity to the direction of its final stretch, with its dream’s-eye vision of rivers running red with blood and its terribly inevitable climax. Which is to say, it would probably be dishonest to make a movie about this moment in history, and those who survived it or didn’t, and not put loss at center stage. BPM, in celebrating men and women who “lived politics in the first person,” at last finds an appropriate convergence point for its emotional and procedural arcs. What better way is there to honor a fallen activist, it finally asks, than to jump right back into the fight?