Release Date: August 23, 2017 (France); October 20, 2017 (USA – limited)
Screened: September 10, 2017 (Toronto International Film Festival)
Runtime: 140 minutes
Rating: No Rating Yet (it’ll be R)
Studio: Memento Films
Director: Robin Campillo
Cast: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart; Arnaud Valois; Adèle Haenel; Antoine Reinartz; Théophile Ray; Catherine Vinatier
Director Robin Campillo affectionately explores the early years of the AIDS crisis through the lens of the Paris outfit of AIDS activist group, ACT UP.
There are equal parts anger and equal parts love in BPM. A significant portion of the film is a fascinating insider look at the weekly meetings of the Parisian outpost of ACT UP, one of the most prominent AIDS activist groups. At the outset of the film, we are given a helpful tutorial on the format of the fastidiously organized meetings of the group, right down to the type of response the members are required to give when approving of a motion (no clapping, only finger snapping as this is less likely to drown out the speaker). The leaders of the meetings are fanatical in ordering that no debates are to take place in the hallway outside the meeting room during breaks and they are studious about enforcing the one-person-talk-at-a-time-after-being-called-on rule. Most importantly, however, it is in these meeting scenes where we learn the main focus of the group’s ire: a greedy pharmaceutical company is withholding a new AIDS drug treatment from the general public, despite having been approved for use a month prior (the film is set during a time early in the epidemic when only two AIDS drugs were available – AZT and DDI – with debilitating side effects). The movie is at its strongest when illustrating the struggles and the determination with which these brave fighters wage the war against those who insist that AIDS be exploited for commercial gain.
A parallel storyline that is just as heartfelt, though perhaps less electrifying than the ACT UP storyline, portrays the relationship between two of the groups members: HIV-negative Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and HIV-positive Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). Nathan and Sean’s tender and loving relationship serves a vital purpose in the narrative: to remind the audience that the men and women depicted in BPM reflect real people, real couples whose lives and deaths are at the mercy of Big Pharma, lest we think of them as simply characters in a story. When Sean falls terribly ill later in the film, Nathan’s caring for him and tending to his needs out of pure and unconditional love is extraordinarily touching and the raw emotion conveyed by these remarkable actors is beautiful to behold. Both Valois and Biscayart are required to be naked and uncommonly vulnerable, both physically and emotionally, and both actors more than rise to the occasion.
However, BPM is most exhilarating when it follows the ACT UP members, whether they are discussing and staging demonstrations at press conferences, barreling through office buildings or storming schools to drill the importance of safe sex into the student populations. The secondary roles comprising the ACT UP members are filled nicely all around and every actor has such a natural quality to him/her that at times, especially during the meeting scenes, the movie takes on an almost documentary-like feel.
Regardless of some technical hiccups (it could have been tightened up a bit, perhaps shortening or losing entirely some of the many scenes of the ACT UP members celebrating and dancing around), this is a story, told with great care, that is essential for everyone to know, whatever your sexual identification may be. BPM is, at its most basic level, a very human story about life and death. The ACT UP group saw (and sees) the AIDS epidemic as a war and they wage a ferocious fight against it for the sake of all of us. The men and women in this story were not only fighting for their lives and the lives of their friends, but for everyone afflicted with this deadly disease at a time when everyone else seemed to want them to just wither away and die. Even though there are now medications on the market (like PreP) that make living with HIV and AIDS less of a death sentence, BPM is nevertheless an important and timely film.