A number of powerful films depicting the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis are rightly considered classics. Parting Glances, Longtime Companion, And the Band Played On and Philadelphia helped to open eyes and hearts before there were any treatments for HIV infection. We can now add to this list Robin Campillo's excellent BPM (Beats Per Minute).
The new movie (original title: 120 battements par minute), which is France's submission in the Best Foreign Language Film for this year's Academy Awards, will opens theatrically in Los Angeles and NYC this weekend and in other cities later this month.
It is a painfully vivid but life-affirming and inspiring portrait of the ACT UP movement in early 1990's Paris. A brave group of male and female activists goes to battle for those stricken with HIV/AIDS, taking on sluggish government agencies and major pharmaceutical companies in bold, invasive actions modeled after New York's ACT UP chapter. The activists, many of them gay and HIV-positive, embrace their mission with a literal life-or-death urgency.
Amid rallies, protests, fierce debates and ecstatic dance parties, newcomer Nathan (played by Arnaud Valois) falls in love with Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), the group’s radical firebrand. Their passion sparks against the shadow of mortality as the activists fight for a medical breakthrough. BPM is movingly intimate but boasts an impressive sense of large scale on a small budget, especially during its Pride scenes.
Any LGBT viewers alive at the time will recognize many of the issues and actions depicted in the film. These included sexually-graphic ad campaigns and spraying politicians with fake blood, although the recipients didn't initially realize the blood was artificial. Director/co-writer Campillo accomplishes the tricky task of showing ACT UP's excesses without denigrating the organization. This is significant since he knows them first-hand, as he revealed during a recent phone interview with Reverend shared with his two leading men.
"I was involved with ACT UP in Paris for for about five years starting in 1992," the Morocco-born Campillo revealed. "I came back toward the end of the 1990's so I was probably involved for ten years in all." At the time, there were approximately 6,000 new HIV cases in France each year. Like its New York chapter, ACT UP Paris's impact was ultimately blunted by infighting among its leader. This is shown in BPM but Campillo directs throughout with a riveting, non-judgmental verve.
Campillo is known to many viewers for his previous acclaimed films Eastern Boys, about a male Ukrainian prostitute, and the Oscar nominated The Class. He also wrote The Returned, a eerily effective French TV series about dead villagers returning to life that he helped adapt for American television. But BPM is a decidedly more personal effort for him.
"I came to ACT UP in 1992 but for many years I didn't realize I could do a film about it," he said. "I thought about doing a movie about the AIDS epidemic but only later realized it could be about my personal experience." Campillo has considerable insight into the health crisis both then and now, as evidenced by his finished film. This contrasts sharply with his two less-informed but nonetheless dedicated lead actors.
"I was 9 in 1992, so I did not remember ACT UP but I do remember the giant condom (they placed) over the obelisk in Paris," Valois recalled with a laugh. "I discovered AIDS in the movies or TV but fortunately did not have any family members or friends with it." His character in the film, Nathan, is equally naïve at first. Upon meeting Sean at an ACT UP meeting, Nathan asks "What's your job?" Sean replies in no-nonsense fashion, "I'm poz, that's all."
Valois's co-star, Nahuel (pronounced "Noel") Perez Biscayart, spoke of his similar upbringing. "I really dived into the story and script," he said. "I was 9 or 10 years old at the time depicted so I knew very little." Biscayart, who was born in Argentina, also admitted to not having any personal knowledge of someone living with HIV/AIDS. You wouldn't know his lack of first-hand experience from his intense performance, which necessitated considerable weight loss.
Valois and Biscayart have several steamy scenes together in the film, which I couldn't resist asking about. "It was a challenge (to film them) because its not just about the sex," Biscayart said. "It was about the characters really opening up to each other." There is a particularly graphic yet poignant scene between the two lovers toward the film's end. "The final scene at the hospital was not just a sex scene but was very emotional; it was very difficult," according to Biscayart. Valois immediately agreed with his co-star.
Those viewers fortunate to have lived to tell about the early days of the AIDS pandemic will find both nostalgia and modern relevancy in BPM. It reminds us of the once popular phrase "silence = mort (death)," which can certainly be applied to our current US political situation. As one character states in a sassy yet still-timely manner, "We don't want to die, darling."
Arnaud Valois, Robin Campillo and Nahuel Perez Biscayart at the New York Film Festival
Now as then, government agencies more often serve as a hindrance than a help to those dealing with HIV/AIDS on the front lines. There have been tremendous medical advances over the last 20 years but not all those infected have had equal access to them. BPM focuses in particular on the development of protease inhibitors, which were initially regarded with suspicion. "People will think they're better than AZT," one skeptical character says about the then-new medications. "I'll take any kind of hope," responds an infected woman.
According to Campillo, Biscayart and Valois, their film is being very well received thus far. "Its very popular in France, which we did not expect," said Campillo. "We had low expectations due to the subject and gay sex scenes; I did not think the film would be such a success."
Moviegoers too young to remember the time period depicted in BPM are also responding well. "Apparently, they are very moved and some are shocked at the beginning (of the film) because they didn't know so many people died from AIDS," said Valois. Biscayart seconded that by saying: "(Younger viewers) are going beyond activism and are excited about breaking taboos; girls are really excited about the gay sex scenes in the film (laugh)." Campillo and his stars are optimistic their work will be just as well received in the US.
With any luck, BPM will emerge as one of the five finalists for this year's foreign language Oscar. Even if it doesn't, though, this powerful movie should not be missed by moviegoers young and old, gay and straight. For more information about the film or to purchase tickets click here.
Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.
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