BPM (aka Beats Per Minute, 120 Battements Par Minute)

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* * * * 1/2

Deservedly taking out a swath of awards at this year’s Césars, including Best Film, Editing, Music, Screenplay, Supporting Actor and “Most Promising” Actor, Robin Campillo’s portrait of Act Up-Paris in the early 1990s is sweeping, compassionate, funny, angry, ambitious and full of the kind of detail and incident that can only be drawn from life. Campillo was a part of the movement at the time, and wrote his screenplay based on his own experiences, while allowing himself dramatic freedom. It joins Phantom Thread and Loveless as a monumentally good film of 2018.

Unlike those two masterpieces of precise formalism, BPM has a loose feel, aided by a documentary-like handheld camera style and performances that may contain certain degrees of improvisation. We start the film with an introduction for a few new members to a meeting of Act Up-Paris followed by the meeting itself, which is passionate, inflammatory, combative, a little chaotic and full of life. Throughout the film, which covers a couple of years, we keep returning to these meetings, which are always lively and often also sad; as the Act Up-Paris members debate how best to deal with the multiple challenges they face, they also must mourn their members who have fallen to AIDS.

France had a strange, complex, convoluted response to the epidemic, coloured by multiple factors, including, perhaps, an over-zealous and tragically self-defeating determination not to demonise homosexuals and drug abusers and, therefore, not adequately warning them of the danger they were in. It all added up to a catastrophic tardiness; France’s awareness campaign ran far behind that of nations such as Australia’s, and there is little doubt casualties were excessive as a result. The Act-Up Paris members had this leviathan to fight, as well as drug companies, represented in the film by Melton Pharm, who were tardy with the results of their tests, their research, and the availability of their drugs. It’s a massive, life-or-death race against a deadly ticking clock, the strictures of science versus the fierce reality of dead young men. One of the film’s mysterious qualities is how it parses this debate with respect to both sides, even as history seems to have declared a tragic winner.

Campillo directs the bulk of the satisfyingly meaty running time as energetic naturalism, but at times he deliberately and profoundly breaks with his established style to cleave off into highly constructed and stylised sequences that reflect on the world of the film in an astonishing, emotionally rich and supremely joyous way. And for the third act, he shifts gears again, telescoping his massive ensemble down to a more personal and intimate narrative strand; it’s like he’s suddenly frozen footage of a loud, frenetic car race, to show us the deadly impact of a crash in silent slow motion. This is bold filmmaking, and it works.

The entire ensemble are brilliant, but mention must be made of Nahuel Pérez Biscayart – winner of that “Most Promising Actor” César – who plays Sean, a young activist but HIV-Positive “veteran”. His energetic, passionate, funny, live-wire performance is electrifying and exciting. It reminds me of seeing the young, wild-eyed Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, with the attendant thrill of watching someone become a star in front of your eyes.

BPM is outstanding and should not be missed.