What does it take to fight a pandemic? Knowledge, courage and resilience, certainly, but also rough-and-tumble argument, a range of friendships both consoling and abrasive, a healthy sense of gallows humor and soul-sustaining supplies of loud music and louder sex. French writer-director Robin Campillo understands all of this in “BPM (Beats Per Minute),” his sprawling, thrilling, finally heart-bursting group portrait of Parisian AIDS activists in the early 1990s. A rare and invaluable non-American view of the global health crisis that decimated, among others, the gay community in the looming shadow of the 21st century, Campillo’s unabashedly untidy film stands as a hot-blooded counter to the more polite strain of political engagement present in such prestige AIDS dramas as “Philadelphia” and “Dallas Buyers Club.” Candidly queer in its perspective and unafraid of eroticism in the face of tragedy, this robust Cannes competition entry is nonetheless emotionally immediate enough to break out of the LGBT niche.
Arthouse patrons who didn’t see Campillo’s remarkable 2013 breakout “Eastern Boys” may recognize him chiefly as the editor and writing partner of French auteur Laurent Cantet. Though Cantet has no direct creative involvement in “BPM” — he earns a thank-you in the closing credits — the spirit of their collaborations is plainly present in Campillo’s lively, literate script, written with AIDS educator and activist Philippe Mangeot. Cantet and Campillo’s Palme d’Or-winning “The Class,” in particular, is evoked through its reliance on contained, formalized group debate as a story propeller. Instead of a high school classroom, however, the four-walled narrative center here is an anonymous college lecture theater in central Paris, where members of AIDS activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) gather on a weekly basis to discuss their campaign strategy.
The French branch of the movement founded in New York in the late 1980s, it’s a broadly accepting group on the outside — comprising AIDS victims across genders and sexualities, as well as parents and LGBT allies affected by the crisis. (Cantet and Mangeot are both members, with latter having served as its president in the late 1990s.) Beneath its right-on surface, however, it’s a collective splintered by differences in principle, politics and even HIV status. When Nathan (a fine, watchful Arnaud Valois) joins the group, he encounters chilly condescension from some of the group’s “poz” members: A reserved, handsome and HIV-negative 26-year-old who keeps his personal association with the disease shyly guarded, he finds his queries about vaccines for the uninfected written off by them as naively obtuse. Among that skeptically positive faction is the young, expressively militant Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), the mouthiest of the “back-row radicals” objecting to what they see as ACT UP’s ineffectively moderate approach to Big Pharma’s lack of progress in developing and distributing courses of AIDS treatment.
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The party lines are compellingly laid out in the film’s very first item of discussion: the fallout of an arguably botched on-stage intervention at a pharmaceutical conference, where organiser Sophie (Adèle Haenel, sturdy if a tad underused) finds her plans for peaceful protest — brightened by water balloons filled with fake blood — hijacked by Sean’s spontaneous manhandling and handcuffing of the night’s key speaker. What counts as violence, and how close can you skate to it to shock complacent corporations into action? This becomes the driving point of argument in the group’s weekly meetings, as Sean — and others whose health, like his, is in rapid decline — fear they literally don’t have time for the more diplomatic tactics of Sophie and team leader Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) to take hold.
Thus does the tenor of discourse take on a true matter-of-life-and-death urgency, integrating the film’s intellectual, procedural and spiritual interests to riveting effect: “living politics in the first person,” to pinch a piquant phrase from the film’s own script. This rattling verbal interplay is kept buoyant and insistent by a well-chosen, well-bonded ensemble, with Pérez Biscayart’s bristling performance — running a mile a minute from anger to apathy and back again — first among many equals.
At 140 minutes, the film doesn’t get as much under the skin of several key players as it could do, though it finds a galvanizing human center as — despite differences of opinion in the lecture hall — a tender, mutually dependent romance blossoms between Sean and Nathan. The film’s frank, sensuous depiction of the couple’s compromised but still active sex life adds visceral, tactile human stakes to ACT UP’s ideological battle: They want the right not just to fair, undiscriminatory medical and social treatment in the public eye, but to love without fear behind closed doors. The emotional centerpiece of the film is an extended sex scene, exquisitely shot in dusky-blue shadow by cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie, in which the couple’s lovemaking seamlessly melts into flashbacks of each man’s most fatefully formative erotic encounters, an exquisite tangle of limbs reaching across both time and internal trauma.
As in “Eastern Boys,” Campillo’s predominantly candid, unvarnished shooting style wrongfoots viewers ahead of his gutsiest manipulations of sound and image — in this case, a stark, unsubtle passage of widescreen visual poetry that turns the Seine purple with the blood of the needlessly damned. The oblique title, meanwhile, refers not just to medical heart rates as bleakly tracked on hospital monitors, but to the euphoric rhythm of the electronic music that soundtracks ACT UP’s occasional disco breaks, in which matters of love, death and ideology are briefly lost to the rush of the dancefloor, and strobe-lit faces fade into dust motes and blood cells. In one of “BPM’s” most gently funny scenes, a well-meaning parent is ridiculed for suggesting “AIDS is me, AIDS is you, AIDS is us” as a campaign slogan. By the end, you see where her critics are coming from: Campillo’s sexy, insightful, profoundly humane film is most moving in those ecstatic interludes where, for a blissed-out moment or two, AIDS is no one at all.