One of my favorite sounds to hear in a theater after a movie ends is no sound at all. This silence usually marks a truly special shared experience, like a hushed reverence.
That’s exactly what happened at my screening of Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute). After the lights came up and everyone shuffled back to their regular lives, my mom asked:
“Was that a documentary?”
The question stands as a testament to the deeply-observed truth of this French film’s fictional cinéma vérité, from Jeanne Lapoirie’s cinematography, to Campillo, Stephanie Leger and Anita Roth’s editing, Campillo and Philippe Mangeot’s writing, and especially the cast in some of 2017’s finest onscreen ensemble work. Yet unlike most documentaries, BPM continually offers devastating moments of thoughtful artistry, demanding that the audience excavate past the surface documentation to uncover the subtle messages of beauty underneath.
The first sequence provides a key to tapping into the multiple layers that Campillo utilizes to chronicle the exploits of the Paris division of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power – popularly known by the acronym ACT UP – in the 1980s and 90s. The movie begins with activists waiting just offstage of an event where they plan to enact one of many public protests in the movie. Their location – outside of the spotlight – symbolizes how people suffering from AIDs were marginalized throughout this global crisis, quite literally not afforded a place on the political stage to let the world know about their friends, families, and lovers dying silent deaths.
BPM tells their stories, which even today are woefully unknown; it’s a fucking tragedy that I wasn’t aware ACT UP existed outside the United States. Yet instead of glorifying these undeniable heroes, the movie takes an honest look at the difficulties facing all sociopolitical movements. Instead of letting the initial protest unfold linearly, Campillo skips ahead to the participants’ subsequent debriefing, in which each of them shares their perspective on exactly what occurred, why, and what should’ve transpired instead.
They vehemently disagree with each other, unsurprising given the literal life-and-death stakes of their debate. When looking back on successful human rights endeavors, students of history often forget the everyday trial and tribulations with which all activists must reckon. The goal is usually obvious – in this case, ending AIDs – but there tend to be as many different opinions regarding how to achieve it as there are members of a movement. As such, much of BPM is concerned with showing the various people and organizations fighting – each other, society, and the government – to find the best solution. Since we’re currently living in yet another age of resistance, what better time but the present to study and learn from such past examples?
Perhaps to underscore this real-world importance, BPM mostly employs documentary realism. But like in the first scene, Campillo’s mise-en-scène periodically cuts through with startlingly meaningful symbolism. Take, for instance, the two sex scenes. On one level, they’re refreshingly frank depictions of gay sex, still all-too-rare nowadays. Yet the way the couple’s current lovemaking fluidly transitions to their past sexual liaisons that infected them emphasizes the blurred line between love and death that gay people associated with intercourse during the height of AIDS. Later on, when one of them is dying in a hospital, they once again pleasure each other; if death came from love earlier, then here love is cuming in the presence of death, thereby making it an act of both defiance and perseverance.
BPM also seems to understand both the power and limitations of these sorts of fictional reenactments of history. While one character talks about how to create fake blood for the purposes of a planned protest, another’s nose starts to bleed. The movie then immediately cuts to actual documentary footage of these protests from back in the day, reinforcing the real-fake dichotomy. When we return to the realm of fiction, the guy who had the nosebleed has died. With thoughts of truth and illusion hopefully in the audience’s head, they should be mindful of how tragedy in art simply cannot compare to the real thing.
At the same time, film has the capacity to record for posterity forgotten but seminal lives of the past. One of my favorite shots in the movie – which is really saying something, because it’s packed with gorgeous compositions – is an overhead angle of a sit-in. The frame is completely filled with protestors lying down, a metaphorical ode to the masses of average people who lay down their lives – both literally in death and figuratively in exhaustively donated time – to causes they so wholeheartedly believe are crucial, essential, and necessary.
Though the beginning takes this more birds-eye view of ACT UP, BPM gradually narrows its focus to one member of the movement, played by Nahuel Pérez Biscayart in a transformative and transformational performance, both physically and spiritually. Campillo’s macro approach to bringing history to life is thus also accompanied by this granular narrowing in on one life devastated by this disease. Activists – and the movie itself – may get caught up in playing politics, but they – and us, the audience – cannot forget the dire implications on a personal scale of their – and our – actions and/or inaction.
Every life sacrificed should be memorialized. There’s no one way to pay tribute to the dead, be it in real life or on the screen; to highlight this point, everybody who attends the funeral near the movie’s conclusion behaves differently. The only true way to honor the dead is by continuing their fight, even if we fight with each other over the best way. Altering the path of mankind for the better requires every last soul willing to step up for what’s right. They all need to be remembered.
And that might be the meaning behind the full title BPM (Beats Per Minute). Spelling out every word of an acronym mirrors how the movie’s wide lens brings to life as many different members of the movement as possible. In doing so, ACT UP becomes more than just a general historical acronym; Campillo literally fleshes it out by telling the stories of the flesh and blood that went into it. Appreciating everyone’s contributions is integral (as an insignificantly-tiny nod to this concept, I made sure to write-out above the full names of the creative team responsible for the movie).
This micro-macro relationship is reflected on screen in the small specks that appear during celebratory party sequences, which symbolize throughout a range of paradoxical elements related to the sheer act of reveling in survival despite the looming shadow of death. The first time the camera lingers on these spots, they seem to strike fear in the looker; this was at a time when no one knew for sure how AIDs spread, so any airborne particles scared the healthy. Later, after becoming familiar with the wonderfully conflicted members of ACT UP, these molecules came to represent each of these activists; the atoms of society are really people, who – like chemicals inside a body – can both harm and heal the whole.
And when we last see these dots, they’re the ashes of a dead body. Protestors are trying to stir up attention for their cause by throwing them over an event full of people capable of helping. As such, though the ashes of course represent death, they’re being used to hopefully inspire a brighter future of more life for all. In this way, the scene reminded me of Angels in America’s conception of the role that the legacy of the bodies of AIDs victims will play in human history:
“Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead, of people who had perished…from the plague…and they floated up…And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles and formed a web, a great net of souls, and the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules, of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired. Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead.”
Fittingly, this final act of turning the death of ashes into dancing life becomes another thumping celebration in BPM. This link between the heartbeat of life and musical beats reveal another interpretation of the title. In electronic music – which pulses through various scenes, like the heartbeats of sufferers, pumping both more life and more toxic cells throughout their bodies – the speed of such songs is determined by how many beats there are per minute. Listeners hear and dance away to the entire track, often not paying attention to every single beat that comprises it.
But without each one, you couldn’t keep dancing to the song, because it wouldn’t work. The same applies to activists; even if we don’t remember all of them, every single one has an irrefutable place on the all-encompassing canvass of progress, and humanity cannot afford for their stories to go unheard. BPM tells them loud and clear.
And with that, I’ll leave you with my favorite ending of any piece of art ever: the last monologue in, once again, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, another work about AIDs that has a lot of the same ideas as BPM on its mind. I would never be able to summarize them as well as Kushner, so I’ll let him take it from here:
“This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.
You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.
And I bless you: More Life.
The Great Work Begins.”
Works of true art like BPM (Beats Per Minute) ensure that – after the aforementioned post-credit silence gives way again to more life– the beat will go on, because neither you, nor anyone, nor anything, nor even death, can stop the beat of The Great Work…
 Though I fear that singling out one person will give the false impression that everyone isn’t equally transcendent, I must commend Adèle Haenel’s otherworldly year. She went from pulling off a star turn that singlehandedly carries a movie like the Dardenne Brothers’ The Unknown Girl, to then seamlessly fitting into more ensemble pieces like BPM and Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama. I have a feeling we’re going to be seeing a lot more of her in the years to come…