A wrenching love story, set in Paris in the early 1990s, told against the background of HIV/AIDS activists battling against government and pharmaceutical indifference as they fight for their lives. The group is ACT UP-Paris and the movie is BPM (Beats Per Minute), an impassioned and incendiary cry from the heart. Director and co-writer Ron Campillo, himself an ACT UP alum, uses a documentary approach to set the scene of youthful armies openly challenging a system that yawns as their casualties mount. Campillo moves his camera (Jeanne Lapoirie did the dazzling, dizzying cinematography) like a battering ram into institutional meetings and street protests and through crowded dance floors where sex is grabbed on the fly to the electric throb of house music. Shock tactics are a means to an end, as when walls are splattered with fake blood to protest the infected plasma distributed by hospitals.
It’s hardly an atmosphere conducive to beginning a relationship. But that’s what happens when ACT UP newbie Nathan (Arnaud Valois) attends a weekly meeting and locks eyes on Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), an agitating radical in every aspect of his life. Biscayart, an Argentine actor, is giving one of the best and most electrifying performances you’ll see anywhere. These unlikely lovers (Sean is HIV-positive, Nathan is negative) move together through a collective of clashing views, reflecting a time before protease inhibitors, when an HIV/AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence. Through Sean and Nathan, Campillo finds a soulful center for the destructive whirlwind that surrounds them.
You could argue that Campillo takes too long (140 minutes) to make his point, but the Moroccan-born filmmaker of Eastern Boys and Les Revenants, needs the intimate moments to put flesh-and-blood on a cause that condemns any society that willingly turns its back on fellow humans in need. At the end, with Sean’s condition scarily deteriorating, the raw and riveting BPM musters the emotional power to floor you.