A touching chronicle of a trying period, as well as a pointed statement on how the spark of revolution so often leads to the far-drearier prospect of mass compromise.
Midway through Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats per Minute), a young HIV sufferer succumbs to the disease, his body experiencing the quick tumbling of T-cell count afflicting those stricken with its most virulent form. His friends respond to the tragedy by assembling a funeral cortege, a piece of aggressive street theater intended to draw attention to the toll taken by AIDS circa the film’s early ‘90s setting, both among the city’s gay community and in other groups situated outside the Parisian mainstream. A history student, the boy’s spoken final wishes for his public interment roll out over footage of the cortege, as he goes on to recount the massacre of thousands of workers by National Guard troops during France’s 1848 June Days uprising. In both contemporary and historical cases, a pall of death and horror has settled on what might have been a moment of liberation, with the future that follows not necessarily a bright one.
In the case of BPM, a gay community just finding its footing as a public entity is wracked by the horror of a mysterious virus, one which seems to be specifically targeting its members. As the film begins, the character and progression of the disease has already been fully defined, and the Paris offshoot of New York’s original ACT UP coalition is already deep into negotiations. These take place primarily with a public determined to ignore the deep damage the disease is inflicting, a passive state of mind the group challenges, primarily in bits of performance that range from raiding the offices of pharmaceutical companies to tossing water balloons swollen with fake blood.
Blood is highly significant in the film, a symbol of the disease’s communicability that also expresses the havoc it’s wreaking upon its victims, many of them young men otherwise in the prime of their lives. Money is another essential means of power transmission, as ACT UP members negotiate with drug companies and government officials to try and get themselves a better deal on life-saving medication, and with themselves, to try to figure out their political standing and the exact function of their shared project. The two elements represent the often conflicting aims of the coalition’s membership, which ranges from extremists dedicated to bold, intensive resistance and those willing to compromise in order to save the lives of themselves and their friends.
In this measured dialectical style, full of scenes presenting reasoned intellectual debate from both sides, the film bears traces of Laurent Cantet’s The Class, which Campillo co-wrote. The process of many voices struggling to become one again mandates the alienation of some, as the public is forced to reckon with reality and the group makes concessions to forward its political position. There are also shades of Campillo’s 2013 film Eastern Boys, whose feral gang of rent-boy refugees functioned as a familial unit, contrasted sharply against the posh upper-middle-class loneliness of its functional protagonist. Still set apart from the rest of “ordinary” society, the gay characters here share a bond forged by their outsider status, but it’s also clear that, for those that survive, a different form of loneliness and isolation may also lie somewhere in their future.
A sense of melancholy is persistent throughout the movie, as the joyful ebullience of dance scenes are undercut by graphical representations of disease progression, the melting away of self into group identity mirroring both the virus’ propagation in the body and the outsiders’ intercession into the mainstream. These scenes typify the film’s spot-on tone, which manages to be poignantly ambivalent about the plague’s historic effect on the gay community, sharpening an ability for advocacy and self-defense while ultimately stripping it of much of the raucous non-conformity and political edge that identified its earlier days. This is achieved while expressing admiration, but no nostalgia, for these hard times and hard situations, in which Campillo once took part as an ACT UP member himself.
The film ends with another death, this time with the body reduced down to ashes, which are scattered violently amid a lush government banquet. As beautiful food displays are tainted with the effluvia of death, the charnel remains also blow back upon those tossing them, leaving no one untouched. BPM stands out as a lucid expression of this dark state of affairs, but what separates it from so many historical resistance stories is its recognition both of the joys of communal action and the way in which those are often lost as a cadre of mutually sympathetic individuals is shaped into a politically expedient unit. What results is a touching chronicle of a trying period, as well as a pointed statement on how the spark of revolution so often leads to the far-drearier prospect of mass compromise.