By Ryan Keating-Lambert
120 BPM or BPM (Beats Per Minute) is a non-traditional HIV film in the sense that most of its run time is spent in the heated debates of activist group ACT UP Paris, and when we finally see the searing physiological and psychological effects of the virus, it’s brutal and unforgiving. This film doesn’t hold back, and that’s what puts it above the rest.
Directed by Robin Campillo, Cannes Grand Prix winner BPM follows the complicated relationship between new ACT UP Paris activist Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a founding member of the AIDS advocacy group, and HIV positive himself. Set in the 1990s in the heat of the AIDS epidemic, the film also deals with the inability of pharmaceutical companies to support drug trials, as well as the general ignorance and stigma surrounding the disease in France at that time.
Director Campillo along with co-writer Philippe Mangeot were both involved in the real ACT UP Paris group in the mid ’90s, and its more than obvious from the film’s brutal honesty and realistic depictions of the debates both inside and outside the group.
The debate scenes are packed with handheld camerawork that fluently sails from subject to subject highlighting the film’s sharp dialogue that is extremely well-written and exploding with raw visceral emotion. For a film that’s mainly set in a small auditorium, it’s wonderfully executed.
The relationship between Nathan and Sean is intense and becomes much more so when Sean’s illness progresses. The two have an on-screen presence and chemistry that’s pretty electric, and the film never holds back on showing the nitty gritty. From the explicit sex scenes to the final stages of AIDS, nothing is held back here.
BPM’s straight-forward brutality is its greatest strength. In a world of ‘safe’ and formulaic Oscar winners like the recent Dallas Buyers Club or the 1993 Philadelphia, BPM gives a well-deserved air of realism to the horror of such an epidemic and avoids cliche. The film is actually the French Oscar entry for this year, so it’ll be interesting to see where it goes.
BPM also won the Grand Prize at Prague’s Be2Can Film Festival this year and appeared to have had a profound effect on its Czech audience who sat in silence during the closing credits of the premiere before snapping their fingers in support, just like the real-life activists.
This film is sure to promote some discussion in the Czech Republic, where ignorance of this disease is still a very real thing. Despite advances in preventative drugs and other HIV-related medication, there are still haunting parallels between BPM’s time frame and contemporary Czech society.
Prague’s DŮM SVĚTLA (The Lightouse) provides free and confidential HIV testing as well as short and long term care for individuals suffering from the disease.
Photo: The Playlist