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A Film that Does Justice to HIV/AIDS

A new movie about the Paris branch of ACT UP is a milestone in HIV/AIDS film.

Celine Nieszawer

Rain is falling on leaves, a whole forest full of them. The frame is filled with stems and green. Then the camera moves and it turns out it wasn’t a forest after all; that we were in Thibault’s windowbox all along. He is just giving his plants a little water while his colleagues from the Paris chapter of ACT UP talk in his living room. This gesture is repeated several times in BPM (Beats Per Minute), the new movie about HIV/AIDS activists in the Paris of the early 1990s from director Robin Campillo. The “real” world of meetings and doctors and the “art” world of such shots—leaves, reflections in windows, dust in the air and mysteries in the blood—turn out to be one and the same. The world is ACT UP-Paris; the heroes are all its leaders, and two men in particular within the group, Sean and Nathan. BPM (Beats Per Minute) is their love story, wrapped in another love story: the story of the solidarity, advocacy, and support fostered between a group of the dying and their friends.

BPM (Beats Per Minute)‘s original French title is 120 battements par minute, “120 beats per minute,” which refers to a human heartbeat. The movie is about life and death. The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, an activist group, agitates for authorities to respond adequately to the HIV/AIDS pandemic and advocates for people with AIDS. The organization, which was formed in New York in 1987, is most famous for its actions in the late 1980s and early 1990s—a die in at Grand Central Terminal, a disruption on the New York Stock Exchange, dumping their loved ones’ ashes on the White House lawn. It also inspired various factions overseas. BPM (Beats Per Minute) follows ACT UP-Paris, a group which took many of their tactical, rhetorical, and branding leads from the New York collective: the pink triangle, the slogan “SILENCE = DEATH,” and so on. Many scenes in BPM (Beats Per Minute) take place at the ACT UP-Paris weekly meeting, so many that we see the little dynamics that always flourish in closed groups, causing rifts and alliances.

In this group there are mostly young, white, cis, gay men. But other groups are key constituents: gay women, men of color, trans women, a woman whose child was infected by a blood transfusion (the French word is “contaminé”). In part, the movie is a testament to those meetings, the sheer effort of maintaining a productive conversation among so many people, so many of them suffering. Outside that meeting room, we see the ACT UP members—some infected, some not—take part in radical actions. They pelt pharmaceutical industry reps with fake blood; storm into labs to seize withheld data on protease inhibitors; enter school classrooms to hand out pamphlets on safe anal sex. Like in the real-life actions of ACT UP, some of them are doing all this while they themselves become sicker and sicker.

So, the group provides a kind of closed setting for BPM (Beats Per Minute). The movie contains almost no contextual shots and no references whatsoever to the world outside; we don’t need to know who is the President of France in the early nineties, or what parts of Paris were not yet gentrified. Instead, we go deep into the lives of some of its members. Sean Dalmazo (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) is a beautiful and angry young man with something of Marc Almond about his face. Sean, who is HIV-positive, gradually falls in love with one of the new recruits to the group, the chiselled (and HIV-negative) Nathan.

As the group pursues its actions and dances together at night (the soundtrack features classics like Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy”), this couple’s intimacy deepens. The movie’s sex scenes are powerful and touchingly unstylized. Nathan and Sean easily discuss condoms and their mothers; after they have sex, they talk about their own pasts. In a flashback, Campillo creates a highly erotic scene out of Sean’s memory of sleeping with his own high school teacher, the man who infected him with HIV. Sex in BPM (Beats Per Minute) blends handjobs with laughter, hospital scenes with memories of childhood, pointed collarbones with earlobes. In one scene, Nathan wipes the cum from Sean’s stomach, and then the tears from his eyes.

Death and dying make people very angry and sad, and these are the feelings that dominate BPM (Beats Per Minute). But it is also a movie about the resilience of humor. Thibault, the group’s coordinator, leads a pitch meeting about slogans and posters. “The font is hideous,” he moans at a sign, which reads, “I want you to live.” When Sean suggests that they could dress up as cheerleaders at a parade (he actually says “girls de pom pom”), Thibault’s face drops. If they start with cheerleaders, what’s next? What’s to stop them careening down a slippery slope to—the horror—mimes?

In another scene, the group gets comically stuck in a revolving door in the middle of a demonstration, slowing down their dramatic entrance into the pharma company’s office. In another, they barge into a high school, defiant. But when one of the members walks into a classroom and announces his purpose, the teacher says, “Ok.” She tells her students to pay attention—this is very important stuff. It rather takes the steam out of the activists’ message, and the students look amusingly bored.

Then there are the tears and the deaths. Grievers flood a mother’s home. A smiling face on a placard announces another young man’s death. Every member of ACT-UP-Paris seems to be wavering between extreme courage and extreme fear at all times. It is very difficult to perform a character’s physical suffering, and Nahuel Pérez Biscayart delivers an extraordinarily convincing and detailed performance as a very strong man becoming weaker.

There have been many movies about HIV/AIDS, and most of them have been bad. Long ago, Hollywood gave us Philadelphia (1993), a schmaltzy juggernaut which implied that being black without AIDS and living with AIDS as a white man were basically the same experience. More recently we’ve seen improvements: Ryan Murphy’s The Normal Heart (2014) was better, as was 2013’s Dallas Buyers’ Club. Like Philadelphia, Dallas Buyer’s Club gave a lot of screen time to homophobic straight men, but at least it wasn’t all violin-backed tragedy.

In its balance of resistance, agony, and joy, BPM (Beats Per Minute) approaches this subject with the the nuance and empathy it deserves. It’s an extraordinary achievement not just in gay cinema or the cinema of illness but for the bigger, tougher category of movies about cultural history. Homophobia and HIV/AIDS stigma still feed into one another. Historicizing the activism which countered it in an earlier time, without minimizing these forces now, is a serious challenge. It’s always easier to make movies about something that we truly believe to be over (World War II, say, or the Wild West). One wonders whether this movie is a product of a world where antiretroviral drugs and other treatments have made HIV a livable condition so many. But whatever the exact relation of BPM (Beats Per Minute) to the history of HIV/AIDS, in the moviemaking of the disease it is a milestone achievement.