The Grand Prix Winner of this year’s Cannes Film Festival is the aggressive and inspiring docudrama BPM (Beats Per Minute), from director and co-writer Robin Campillo (Eastern Boys, They Came Back) about one of the most active times of ACT UP Paris, during the early 1990s. The biggest-stakes issue at hand was the sluggish progress of pharmaceutical companies in getting drugs tested and on the market, leading the activist group to take startling steps to “encourage” the drug companies, as well as the government agencies overseeing them, to move things along and remedy supposed supply shortages.
ACT UP would stage disruptions of corporate events, drug conferences, and even just march into drug company offices and vandalize them with fake blood and accusatory flyers that called those that worked there murderers. Campillo’s film (co-written with Philippe Mangeot) spends a great deal of time dropping us into the heart of the organization, paying particular attention to its weekly strategy meetings/issue debates, where we get a sense that there are factions who frequently disagree with just how abrasive and destructive the group’s protesting should get. Each person at the meetings is there for different reasons—many are HIV-positive gay men, but others are there on behalf of those who got the virus from bad blood transfusions, sharing needles, or from clients using sex workers.
The film captures all aspects of the activist lifestyle, from negotiating at government forums and other meetings to blowing off steam at a local club. While there are almost too many characters to name, BPM narrows its focus on a couple that meet at one of these planning sessions. Nathan (Arnaud Valois) is a newcomer who is HIV-negative, but has known many a former lover with the virus and wants to lend support. He falls for one of ACT UP Paris’s most vocal and fiery members, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who is always looking to push the boundaries of acceptable forms of protest. Time is not on the side of many group members, so urgency is always a component of their actions, especially after a member succumbs to AIDS.
In a way, director Campillo’s blending of the personal story with the more fly-on-the-wall manner he presents the organizational aspects of ACT UP is the perfect way to tell this story, because there is nothing more personal than dying at such an alarming rate, in even more alarming numbers for so many years while governments and drug companies drag their feet because there was no money in dealing with this disease at the time. Far from a nostalgia trip, BPM does make for a compelling snapshot of a time and place where activism felt more critical and necessary, when the rules of engagement were not just about winning but about survival.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.