“120 battements par minute,” or “BPM (Beats Per Minute),” is France’s entry for the foreign film category of the Oscars and won the Grand Prize at Cannes. It is an unflinching look at the LGBTQ+ community in the early 1990s during the height of the AIDS crisis. It follows ACT UP-Paris, the Parisian branch of the American AIDS activist group ACT UP.
The film opens by cutting straight to the issue as the audience is introduced to the weekly meetings of ACT UP-Paris. One of the leaders is explaining the logistics of the meeting while members slowly file in. There is a diverse group of people, but the leader makes the point that regardless of their medical status, once they join the group they will be seen as HIV positive by the rest of society.
To align oneself with this community was a form of voluntary ostracization.
Though the time period of this film is decades before our own, many of the concerns and arguments seem prescient, particularly in the context of “Free Speech Week” and debates on centrism, Antifa and what the proper form of resistance is.
The first demonstration that the group takes in the film highlights the beginning of the split. Chaos and nerves resulted in a subset of individuals handcuffing one of the officials to a pillar. At the meeting after the fact, one of the other members protests this action, saying they’ve never done anything like that before. Other members insist it was necessary. Officials had grown complacent, almost mocking ACT UP.
ACT UP’s actions were not going to result in any change unless they shocked the country.
Their actions put them at odds with some other advocacy groups, and highlighting this tension points to one of the film’s greater strengths. It is a very honest portrayal of the reality of the inner-workings of activist groups — especially on the left. There is a constant battle from within and without.
The film looks at the greater context of the time — what it was to deal with the AIDS epidemic, as these young people became fluent in dense medical language and dealt with executives of powerful pharmaceutical companies. In the midst of this historical commentary, the film retains a personal story. It depicts the reality of activism by providing a snapshot of specific people’s lives — their fears, frustrations and relationships. This film is political, but as the narrative reminds us, this specific issue could never be separated from the personal. These people were activists because of their private lives.
This film is consumed by a race against time. Meetings devolve into arguments as individuals frantically yell out their dwindling T4 cell counts. This pressure of time chafes against others’ desires for a more moderate approach to activism. Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), one of the protagonists, is dying and to see the organization mocked, to see them constantly have to fight to be seen as human even as he is withering away, slowly tears him apart.
Watching the film, one cannot help but feel that was part of the motivation to resist action — sooner or later everyone pressuring these drug companies would be dead.
The film does not always follow a linear chronology and this is one of its strengths. The group’s actions are often introduced over the course of their meetings, as they recount their successes or failures. Every action ends with the group going to a club. The pounding music and pulsing lights can be overwhelming, but that is the point. The lights blur and obscure, catching the dust particles before slowly fading into the kind of scene one would expect to see below a microscope.
The movie culminates in a blurring of all aspects of their lives; lovemaking, resistance and dancing. Nathan (Arnaud Valois) asks Sean what he does as a job. Sean responds by saying he’s Pos, that’s his whole life. That is the thesis of the film. This is an all consuming battle and to lose is to die.
This pressure leads to incredibly passionate and tumultuous relationships among the group, as the plot ultimately develops into a portrait of people desperately in love and desperately afraid all at the same time. The reality of this fight, as depicted by the film, was to experience these conflicting emotions simultaneously all in the context of the ever-consuming pressure to survive.
“BPM (Beats per Minute)” opens at Shattuck Cinemas Friday, Oct. 27.