' ' Cinema Romantico: Beats Per Minute

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Beats Per Minute

As a self-professed “militant” of the advocacy group Act Up founded in the late 80s to combat the AIDS crisis by means both big and small, director Robin Campillo chronicles the organization’s early days in the sprawling yet intimate “Beat Per Minute.” And if the film is often harrowing, particularly as it documents what the disease can do, it’s just as often full of life, repeatedly following scenes of dissent with moments on the dance floor, from which the movie gleans its title, as if its characters are replenishing emotional oxygen for the next battle. What’s more, “BPM” occasionally weaves celebration into moments of protest, like the group fashioning itself as a kind of HIV conscious cheer team in the midst of a gay pride parade, chanting and handing out condoms as Campillo frames the sky around them with colorful confetti, where the joy is real even if the cause is trying to pry open people’s eyes to the horror. And so even if one of the film’s most memorable monologues involves the charismatic and HIV positive Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) mocking the sentiment that from pain comes beauty, that’s sort of what Campillo does in this scene, and throughout, anyway, but without ever trafficking in crude schmaltz.

Much of “Beats Per Minute” takes place amidst Act Up meetings, set in crowded lecture halls. There are many discussions, and though these scenes often run long on time, their twitchy, guerilla-like camerawork, making us feel like someone in the room, our heads on a swivel to keep up, lend them abundant urgency. Nor are these scenes mere delivery devices for exposition, preferring to let its characters have honest discussions about the best means to advance their cause, whether that’s by any means necessary or taking a more professionalized approach in dealing with big pharma to get the help they need. That these debates, prickly but passionate, are honestly undertaken but never really resolved underscore the sensation of democracy in action, brought home in a monologue citing the 1848 French revolution laid over one lecture hall meeting, a moment in which two different pasts seem to mingle with our present, reminding us of the inherent messiness of political and social fairness.

Occasionally others are allowed into the room, like a pair of defensive pharmaceutical representatives, and sometimes we see Act Up engaging with others in the field, like polite raids on high schools to distribute condoms, but mostly these activists remain apart from the larger world. That’s evocative of AIDS being so often misunderstood and overlooked at the time, yet just as suggestive of the disease itself, where those who had it were so often forced to suffer in the dark and pushes into the light even if they were not ready. Indeed, one searing monologue finds a character explaining how he came out to his parents by having to explain he was HIV positive. And when a member of the group suggests Act Up adopt the slogan “AIDS is me, AIDS is you, AIDS is us”, everyone else recoils because they want help, dammit, and they want it (need it) now, not just token empathy.

The political is made personal through Sean and Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a HIV negative newbie to the group, who are drawn together. The emotional center of their relationship is a lengthy sex scene quivering between the present, their lovemaking intertwined with whispers about their past romantic partners, some of whom seem to materialize, like ghosts, in the here and now, evocative not only of the way in which the past lingers, even in moments of extreme intimacy, but how in the midst of the AIDS crisis old decisions could carry immense weight.

And as Act Up’s actions get bigger and bolder, the more “Beats Per Minute” closes in on Sean, a wonderful contrast, never more palpable than cutting from the Seine dyed red to illustrate the blood of so many victims to a slowly dying Sean. Still, even as Campillo reduces his perspective to Sean’s small hospital room, the group remains paramount, and if all these Act Up provocateurs don’t exactly get in-depth backstories, the air of each actor nevertheless invests his or her character with a distinct persona anyway, all of which are varied from one another despite what they have in common. But what they have in common is what is most vital, and when Nathan asks Sean what all these other people do, Sean can only smile. What do they do? They give themselves to the cause, because the cause is their lives, which the closing sequence brings home acutely, becoming something like a jazz funeral, and the way that Campillo concocts it, it looks as much like a dance as an act of protest.

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