BPM, which, in French, is 120 Battements Par Minute, is France’s official entry in the Academy Awards competition. Its title is taken from electronic dance music lingo and, also, from life, in general.
In Paris in the early 1990s, a group of activists goes to battle for those stricken with HIV/AIDS, taking on sluggish government agencies and major pharmaceutical companies in bold, invasive actions. The organization is ACT UP, and its members, many of them gay and HIV-positive, embrace their mission with a literal life-or-death urgency. Amid rallies, protests, fierce debates and ecstatic dance parties, the newcomer Nathan falls in love with Sean, the group’s radical firebrand, and their passion sparks against the shadow of mortality as the activists fight for a breakthrough.
Director Robin Campillo has set the AIDS drama in 1990’s Paris, where ACT UP activists are going to extraordinary lengths to urge the French government to address the AIDS epidemic killing gay residents of the city.
This is a candid and compelling look at a tumultuous historical moment in the early gay rights movement. Mitterand is the French Premier and the group meets to plan an attack on Melton Pharmaceutical using fake blood, which will be thrown on the 12th floor because the activists feel the company is moving too slowly to address the disease killing its members. “We wanted to mark minds by throwing fake blood. Even I felt I’d been taken hostage,” says one of the activists, all of whom are carted off to jail after the demonstration. “You justify the unjustifiable. You’re here to keep us waiting. You’ve arranged a shortage to plug the new molecule,” an official of the pharmaceutical company is told.
As the group meets and discusses various strategies to get real help, the comment is made, “We’ll keep pissing the state off until there’s a real prevention policy.”
Many stories are told, including those of Patrice, Judith, Jeremie, Helene and Nathan. Herve DeCaire says he was infected at 16 by a mathematics teacher: “We were in love. I trusted him and he trusted me. A week later, I was sick as a dog.” All the spreading of the virus causes activists to say, “When you infect someone, you’re 100% responsible. You can’t split responsibility.”
BPM is “all in” in its depiction of the AIDS crisis. There are graphic sex scenes (including the masturbation of a dying man by his homosexual lover) and many discussions that show that compassion amongst the French populace has turned to indignation at ACT UP’s protests.
Sophie, the spokeswoman during the ACT UP meetings tries to build consensus, but some among the group are growing impatient, saying things like, “We’re dying, yet indifference remains.”
One by one the principals in BPM die. The final death of Nathan, with his mother and lover taking care of him, is hard to watch. At a time when the HIV positive rate in junkies had risen from 4% to 30% in just ten years and those infected are measuring their remaining lifetime in how many T4 cells they have left to fight off infection, this film reminded me most of the 2014 movie made for television, “The Normal Heart.”
It is an important film to see before Oscar time, but a grimly depressing one.