Outside of the meetings, Sean grows to take much of the film’s focus. HIV-positive for years, the effects of the disease are beginning to sap his energy, if not his lust for life. He confides to new member and eventual boyfriend Nathan (Arnaud Valois) that he would like to be able to say that AIDS made his senses sharper and made him treasure every day, but it’s all been an unromantic exercise with no possible upside. He and Nathan fall in passionate love with each other, though Sean apologizes that Nathan is going to have to be the one to shepherd through the terminal stages of AIDS. Campillo chronicles Sean’s decompensation in heartbreaking, clinical detail, suggesting that his onscreen surrogate is Nathan and he’s reimagining an experience that he’s had himself.
BPM functions as a visceral counterpart to David French’s thorough documentary How to Survive a Plague about the New York chapter of Act Up. Many of the tactics are familiar, especially the ostentatious displays of mournful rage after members die and their remains are used as props to shame government and pharmaceutical entities. The emotional power of this period was readily apparent in French’s journalistic endeavor, and BPM augments it with substantive montages and naked appeals to joy and grace even when those making the appeals are on their way to the grave. The centerpiece scene is a Pride parade that Act Up is determined to turn into an expression of ecstasy as opposed to the dreary affairs of years past. The members dress up as cheerleaders and strut and chant their way through Paris in beautiful demonstrations of resistance and life, sans cullotes in short shorts and pom-poms. Campillo gives the viewer a complete picture of what Act Up is doing and why, while also giving them filmmaking flourishes that put the viewer in the same breathless headspace as his heroic activists.
In the depiction of said activists, Biscayart is unforgettable as Sean. His body is slender and waifish when he’s healthy, but he radiates confidence and power in compensation. The force of his debate style makes his body tilt forward, and he kisses with an intensity that seems to stun his partners. Living with AIDS might not have sharpened his senses because Biscayart plays Sean like he’s felt everything long before he contracted the virus. This is a thirsty performance that retains much of its passion even as Sean’s strength leaves his body. In Sean’s lithe but substantial shadow, Reinartz’s Thibault provides loyal opposition as a necessary character but one who would be ill-served by a film that focuses on him. Reinartz’s wheels are always turning in search of political angles, and his character can’t lose himself like Sean can. Valois’ Nathan is also overshadowed but rightly so as he needs to complement Sean on this journey. The supporting roles, including one played by the consistently excellent Adele Haenel, contain no false notes and occupy their own well-thought-through positions within the group.
Historical films like BPM that come loaded with so much emotional oomph can’t be allowed to just rest on the high drama of the time and pluck readily available strings for easy emotion. Campillo clears this bar by leaning heavily into the two contrasting poles that mark the period; solidarity forged under pressing circumstances and the utter tragedy of dying young. BPM does what is expected from a film about pre-chronic-disease-status AIDS, but it does it so well that the expectant viewer can’t help but be bowled over. In a late scene, Sean and Nathan visit a Normandy beach that Agnes Varda also visited in her documentary Faces Places. Varda’s purpose in that film was to elevate the average French citizen to mythic status by plastering their picture on the sides of buildings, and Campillo does the same with his characters. These were average people until circumstances demanded they do something. When Varda visits the beach, the picture she puts on a giant chunk of concrete that used to be a Nazi bunker is washed away after a single tide. The bodies of the activists in BPM are just as vanished as Varda’s picture, but their actions can’t be washed out to sea. A-