‘BPM,’ Winner of Cannes’ Grand Prize, Is a Breathtaking Look at the Fight Against AIDS
Editor’s Note: Christophe Martet, a member of Hornet’s Paris team, was a member of the AIDS activist organization Act Up-Paris in the ’90s, which is the subject of Robin Campillo’s heartbreaking new movie 120 battements par minute (American title: BPM). The film premieres Oct. 20 in NYC, the following week in San Francisco and Nov. 3 in Los Angeles.
Martet saw the film at Cannes, where it received critical and public acclaim and won the Grand Prize (this year’s jury was led by Pedro Almodovar) and the year’s Queer Palm, which was sponsored by Hornet.
Here he offers his personal impressions and thoughts.
The magical mystery of cinema is that when you passionately love a movie, it’s often because you feel the filmmaker did it for you only. Even if the characters do not resemble you — if the story is far from you — you suddenly realize by a detail that strikes you that the film corresponds exactly to your emotions.
This is even more true when the film in question plunges into a story you have lived. And what a story! The creation and emergence of Act Up-Paris in the early 1990s was an unheard of, unique, strong and violent experience shared by thousands of activists. I leave it to researchers and historians to remind us of the struggles of Act Up and the changes that this group has made possible in the fight against AIDS.
But let me clarify something from the start, to dispel any misunderstanding: I have no nostalgia for this period of high intensity, when our friends and relatives died in large numbers. Believe me, there are better things to do than spend your life between hospitals and cemeteries. The first notable quality of BPM, this new film by gay director Robin Campillo, is that it does not wallow in nostalgia. The action of the film takes place 25 years ago, but we are not in a reconstitution of time. We are at the moment the story is made.
One real strength of the film is that it is precise and fair, and Campillo shows the contradictions, squabbles and the divergences in points of view at the time. Act Up-Paris is first and foremost a gathering of individualities, personalities, men and women who might not have met each other had AIDS not existed. It is by a multitude of small details — all factual — that Campillo succeeds in this tour de force film to make palpable the emotions that built Act Up. Each and every individual was there because, as Campillo shows, we are stronger as a group.
At no time during the film did I feel Campillo had invented something, despite every scene being fiction.
In this thrilling movie, Campillo shows everything: blood, sex, bodies in alternating moments of tension, scenes of infinite gentleness. Cries, whispers, tears and laughter. The film takes you on a ride.
Campillo also respects the actresses and actors who are completely committed. In the role of the head of Public Action — a mission of the most strategic importance for an activist group — lesbian actress Adele Haenel expresses a diversity of incredible states. Was the official in charge of public action sometimes afraid at a demonstration? Yes, certainly, as we all were. Haenel seems to live this fear. At Act Up, it is often women — lesbians or not — who led the public action. At once strong and more organized, they gave all their energy, without the ego sometimes shown by men. The face of Haenel during one scene — marked by sadness, almost out of breath — follows you long after the film ends.
At this point, you might say to yourself, “OK, this journalist lived through the film’s story, so of course it resonates with him. But how does it concern me?” Feeling the reactions of the 900-seat room in which I saw the movie during the Cannes Film Festival, the story of 120 battements par minute touches far beyond those who lived through this time. In my opinion, these characters are confronted with situations that are experienced by so many others: “What would I do had I contracted the disease? What would I do to help a loved one? How would I behave in the face of injustice, denial and discrimination?” I ask, who is not concerned by all these questions, except those who have always possessed everything and have reigned as absolute masters?
Several characters are directly inspired by militants, but the one who most impressed Campillo, and myself as well, is Cleews Vellay, the second president of Act Up, who was fully invested in the organization until — literally — his last breath. As soon as actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart appears on-screen, I realized that through the character of Sean, Cleews would not be betrayed, distorted or diminished. I imagine that Campillo made it imperative for himself to respect this militant who never shirked and who fought for prisoners, sex workers and drug addicts. The film is a beautiful tribute to him.
In BPM, Campillo rejects the affect, the discourse, the great phrases, all in favor of the sensations, the reflections, the doubts and the sufferings of Act Up-Paris. Even the caustic humor of the time is found in the film’s most unexpected and tragic moments.
This film makes it possible to feel the urgency, the feverishness, the rapidity with which too often AIDS attacked the body and killed our brothers. Indeed, I left the screening devastated at first. But Campillo has offered me the most beautiful answers to my dull and ever-present pain. His film reconciles and restores courage, insinuating itself into you as a vital force.