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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Review: BPM (Beats Per Minute) Finds Passion in Protest

"He lived his politics in the first person," is a memorable description given to one of BPM (Beats Per Minute)'s fallen activists, but it is also, in some ways, the film's mission statement. There are essentially three main threads running through BPM. In the first, we follow ACT UP Paris, an AIDS activist group, as they execute protests and public events; in the second, we watch the ACT UP members have heated, intensely personal debates in a rented classroom where they plan their protests and craft their message; in the third, we follow two veterans of ACT UP Paris, Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), and their relationships with newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois). But these three threads cannot be easily disentangled. Sean and Nathan meet in protest, and Sean's heated, confrontational persona in the meetings is informed by the spreading illness we see throughout his romance. Sean, like everyone else in BPM, lives his politics in the first person, because he is aware that his life or death, his love and sex, are fundamentally political in the system he's in right now. BPM is, at least on some level, about the struggle to change that system. The fight to allow someone to choose politics rather than be political.

The performances in the film are roundly fantastic, but I want to single out Nahuel Pérez Biscayart. Biscayart has to carry, in a way, both the film's procedural drama and its personal drama, and they require two very different sets of skills. In the more procedural aspects of the film, Biscayart is a furious queen, a rambunctious but charismatic protestor who has long since learned that there are some people who simply aren't worth his time and stopped trying. His romance with Nathan, on the other hand, is tender, a sharply earnest portrayal of two men finding each other amidst tragedy and snapping back at the limitations AIDS may have put on their lives. The movie is never more thrilling than when Sean is out and about, getting in someone's face, but Biscayart manages the subtle transition from aggressive to desperate very well. He's a magnetic performer in a role that could have so easily slipped into cliche.

That said, there are parts of the film, and Biscayart's arc, that feel more complete than others. When BPM is focused on ACT UP's big, messy group discussions - like an early scene in which the group must jump from discussing a friend and founding member of the group who has passed away to discussing protest strategy and philosophy - it is riveting in a way few things I've seen since Selma have been. The romantic drama, on the other hand, doesn't work quite as well for me, if only because "romantic tragedy in specter of HIV" is an all-too-familiar drama that I don't think the film personalizes as strongly as it does some of its other threads.

But, despite some of those limitations, I think the romance in the film is well worth watching. Just as writer/director Robin Campillo brings an authentic energy to ACT UP's discussions and events, he finds a few gorgeous moments of specificity in the relationships. Despite a few stretches in the back half that felt generic, Sean and Nathan's relationship is nevertheless far more sensual than I'm used to from gay romance, more along the lines of the explicit intimacy of 2011's romantic masterpiece Weekend rather than something more sanitized. A great example of this comes in the film's first sex scene, which is awkward and fumbling, featuring characters having to negotiate what they're comfortable with and what they like, as they do in real life. It's an uncomfortable familiarity that feels profoundly honest.

Part of what helps BPM shine is the film's lively editing, which jumps casually between planning meetings, execution, celebration, and romance. Particularly in the film's first half, Campillo and editors Stephanie Leger and Anita Roth cut for pace and energy. There's a fabulous momentum to the film's more hectic opening scenes that mirrors the thumping energy of the techno music they all dance to together after their protests. While much of the film belongs to Sean and Nathan, the editing often puts us in the shoes, or the head, of other members of ACT UP, from Thibault to minor supporting characters in the organization. Campillo, Leger, and Roth have created a film that feels alive in a way I almost never see.

Right now, we are in a time of increased social activism -- protest, as has been said, is the new brunch. There's a constant debate over how much is too much, how far is too far. Right now, at the onset, any protest - or at least, any protest by people of color - is too far for millions of Americans. But just as damning is protest that gets ignored completely. Part of the tension of BPM is between Thibault's desire to maintain their allies in government and research and remain respectable enough to be able to work openly and Sean's realization that people are dying who don't have to be, and any system that allows that to happen should be burnt down, not appeased.

So, "He lived his politics in the first person." As we have a renewed national discussion about protest, identity politics, and healthcare, BPM serves as a powerfully emotional reminder that for many people, life is politics, unfortunately and inescapably. Many of the activists working with ACT UP didn't want to spend their time learning the science and medicine they needed to advocate for themselves, but they were forced to do so by a society that ignored them until it was too late. They don't enjoy getting arrested for vandalizing a pharmaceutical company withholding the results of a drug trial, but it's certainly better than dying.

BPM (Beats Per Minute) is a lively, enthralling drama. Like a shapeshifter, its meaning and purpose and even style changes over the course of the film, a story that, like its characters, has so much to say and an unwavering knowledge that it doesn't have enough time to say it all. But, like its characters, BPM makes the most of that time, and it left a powerful impression. BPM (Beats Per Minute) is at once somber and energetic, romantic and tragic, heartbreaking and life-affirming. It's an all too human portrait of men and women living their politics in the first person, and it has never felt more relevant.

BPM (Beats Per Minute), also known as 120 Beats Per Minute, is out now in limited release, and will reach the Atlanta Midtown Art Cinema at Friday, November 17th. Written and directed by Robin Campillo, BPM (Beats Per Minute) stars Nahuel Pérez Biscayart and Arnaud Valois.
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