Near the end of the French-language AIDS drama BPM (120 battements par minute) one character sketches a far-too-soon eulogy for another, his recently fallen friend and fellow activist: “He lived politics in the first person. He was a queen, funny, badass. Alive.”
That brief epitaph cuts to the soul of Robin Campillo’s gorgeous, maddening, and ultimately heartbreaking film — a talky, discursive drama whose emotional power quietly accumulates. Campillo (who won a César for penning the 2008 festival smash The Class) based BPM on his own experience with the Parisian branch of ACT UP, an American advocacy group famed for their political theater, firebrand tactics, and push for full disclosures in an age when, as their official motto memorably declared, silence really did equal death. Several lead characters emerge from the crowded protests and meetings he shoots in near-real-time verité style: Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a pocket firecracker with hooded Edith Piaf eyes; the gentle, brooding Nathan (Arnaud Valois); the brusquely efficient Sophie (Adèle Haenel); sweet teenage hemophiliac Marco (Théophile Ray).
The movie moves between the tactical (methodically planning a guerrilla-style raid on an unresponsive pharmaceutical company, or arguing fiercely over what the slogan on the group’s float at a gay-pride parade should convey) and the deeply intimate (Sean and Nathan’s blossoming romance is played for both explicit sexuality and exquisite tenderness). Though the film took the prestigious Grand Prix jury prize at Cannes, its grim subject matter, impressionistic tone, and nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime will most likely limit its audience. Which is a shame; there are undoubtedly more informative chronicles of the era, and more accessible ones too. But there’s something uniquely, transcendently beautiful in Campillo’s particular vision and the unhurried way he unfurls it. A-