There is more passion in every frame of BPM (Beats Per Minute) than most directors will capture in an entire filmography. Maybe that’s because it evokes a documentarian’s gaze while depicting France’s AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. Or, maybe it’s because director Robin Campillo was actually a member of ACT UP, the activist group that the film follows. But, no matter the reason, BPM demands to be raved about.
There really isn’t a main character in BPM. Instead, the film puts ACT UP at the front and center of the drama, highlighting the group and their mission to start a national conversation about the AIDS epidemic plaguing France. Much like in America, the government largely ignored the health crisis, leaving already underserved social groups to perish.
Campillo uses his camera as a set of eyes for the audience, treating them like a new member of the group as he explains the rules of meetings, navigates the inner-politics of the movement, and plants them in the middle of the disruptive protests that ACT UP employed to enact change. BPM is almost unrivaled in the way it recreates this period, with the scenes of activism being simultaneously moving and clinical in their progression.
Employing an ensemble of mostly first-time performers, BPM makes it easy for its actors to disappear into their roles. But these characters quickly become more than sympathetic talking points: their stories become humane testimonies to the necessity of AIDS treatment, and the lack of recognizable faces in the cast helps make these subplots feel all the more genuine.
At the heart of the film is a love story of sorts between two members of ACT UP: Sean, an HIV+ man who was infected by his teacher when he was 16, and Nathan, the newest member of the group. But there are other characters we grow to care about, even if they only appear onscreen for five minutes or so. One powerful moment finds a mother fighting for schools to teach proper sexual education, as her own high school aged son became infected due to the lack of information given to him. Another thread finds a college student slowly coming to terms with his HIV status, and struggling to understand the experimental drugs and confusing health advice he’s given by an uncaring doctor. These little sequences feel so genuine, raw, and unfiltered that they create a greater narrative than any conventional drama ever could. It’s because of these moments that BPM emerges as the best narrative film about the AIDS crisis, regardless of country of origin.
An unfortunate truth about American filmgoers is that they don’t watch foreign movies. This is reflected in the box office numbers, and even holds true for the Academy – international films rarely appear in any category but Best Foreign Language Film, and the nomination rules for that specific part of the Oscar race require voters to see a very small pool of films.
This isn’t meant to shame filmgoers; after all, mainstream movie theaters rarely show foreign language films as it is. But BPM should be an exception to this rule. For one thing, it’s beautifully directed and undeniably well made. But, somehow, Campillo has made a film that captures a particular moment in history, while also feeling entirely of the moment. In an age where Americans are debating how to properly protest injustice and fight for social change, a film like BPM provides a crucial reminder that, sometimes, civil unrest is necessary to get the job done. This is a must see.
Overall rating: 10 out of 10.