An abbreviation most often used for dance tracks, the phrase “beats per minute” gains poignant resonance in a tough new French film. In the years before protease inhibitors, when the gay movement fought for every federal dollar, a lifespan was measured in beats and T-cells. BPM (Beats Per Minute) follows the Paris chapter of ACT-UP as it debates strategy: whom to pelt with blood, which pharma reps to heckle, should they even do these things? At the same time members push to lead something like normal lives, in which the politics of dancing may not be synonymous with the politics of feeling good. By the time Robin Campillo’s film ends, there’s a sense in which these men and women accept that the struggle is actually a war, and the Christian virtue of tending to the sick and dying gives this struggle its moral clarity. If you haven’t read David France’s How to Survive a Plague, do so after watching BPM (Beats Per Minute).
Nahuel Pérez Biscayart leads an excellent cast of young actors. He plays Sean, the most vocal member of the chapter. The opening scenes are almost a parody of what Americans expect from the French: a literate discussion in which the interlocutors exchange the nastiest retorts. Instead of applause, the audience snaps its fingers. Members range from infected men and junkies to a mother showing support for her son. There’s a lot to be nasty about. A botched protest during which the group handcuffed a French health bureaucrat and covered him in fake blood requires a reevaluation of their methods. Leader Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), in an impossible position, has to mediate between these factions, including his lieutenant Sophie (The Unknown Girl‘s Adèle Haenel), who prefers radical methods. He leans toward bluntness, however. “I want ice cream! I want a vacation!” is his mocking response when a proposed slogan makes feeble demands. The real villains in their minds are giant pharmaceutical firms like Melton, so on their mission they break in, graffiti the walls, and explode water balloons filled with blood. For the sake of comity an employee counsels patience — an easy fix, for no one at the firm is infected.
To let off steam, the group dances away the heartache. One of Campillo’s less felicitous touches is filling the screen with what at first looks like snowflakes but is really sperm; the screenwriter of Lauren Cantet’s most precise films (Time Out, The Class) is a realist, not a fabulist. But the montage does make its point: only dancing can we feel this free. Sean and Nathan (Arnaud Valois) hook up, leading to one of the most honestly rendered erotic scenes in recent film; the HIV-positive Sean feels like a man again instead of a victim, and Biscayart makes compelling this sliding between grief and relief, notably in a late hospital scene that also manages to be hilarious.
The inevitability of what happens to them doesn’t detract from BPM‘s power. Like 2014’s Pride, only less tame, it’s alive; we get a sense of these people’s urgency. Those unwilling to connect imagination with empathy most insist on the execrable term “identity politics” — as if “identity” were a discrete entity allergic to and formed away from politics.