On Monday night I saw the French film, BPM: Beats Per Minute, at the Vancouver International Film Festival.
The story follows the members of the Paris chapter of ACT-UP in the early nineties. At the time the film takes place, AZT is the only treatment available to AIDS patients which was either ineffective, or the side effects were so violent, people stopped taking it. Antivirals (or the cocktail as the are known) were still being tested; however, pharmaceutical companies were keeping the results close to their chests.
I’ve seen a lot of “AIDS” movies in my time: Longtime Companion, Philadelphia, Parting Glances, and The Living End to name a few. Those films were released at the height of the crisis when there seemed to be no end in sight. They had an immediacy to them; they were pleas for help and compassion. They tried to humanize the victims of AIDS—portray them as people instead of monsters who got what they deserved, as so many right-wing politicians wanted us to believe.
There have been a few AIDS epics over the years, the most successful being the stage production and HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner’s, Angels in America, which is brilliant. I recently saw the Arts Club’s production of Perestroika at The Stanley and was amazed by how many of the themes resonate today. That said, the play was written and produced when AIDS was still a death sentence.
What distinguishes BPM from the movies of the eighties and nineties is that it is set at the cusp of a major medical breakthrough. When my friends and I talk about our friends who succumbed to the virus, we often say, “If they had just hung on for another year they would have made it.” In many ways, the characters are doing exactly that: hanging on for one more year.
The VIFF program described BPM as face-paced, and a race against time. That’s only half true. The protagonists are definitely running out of time, but the film’s pacing is methodical. There are a lot of scenes in meeting rooms that center around debates as to what course of action to take next. I’ll admit there were moments when I wished I could have paused the film to stretch; at the same time, I couldn’t stop watching it and wanted to see how it ended.
Although I wished the director, Robin Campillo, picked up the pace, I could not shake the feeling that I was watching something epic. The film’s structure felt like it had been borrowed from the documentary How to Survive a Plague, but the story was so artfully told it was easy to shake the comparisons.
Whereas Angels in America was a mediation about a nation’s soul, BPM was closer to Love in the Time of Cholera. Yes, the characters are fighting to change the world, but they are also falling in love with each other at the same time. There is an unlikely romance at the centre of the film which drives the narrative to its conclusion and rips your heart out at the end. It was so emotional that I had to ask the woman next to me in the theatre if she was okay when it was over, she was so emotional.
What distinguishes BPM from other stories that tried to impose the AIDS epidemic on larger issues, is how poetically it is told. The characters are constantly talking about the “next molecule” and there are lots of imagery of cells and dust floating in the air that are superimposed over images of people dancing at a club after a protest. It was beautiful watching how all of these images finally came together at the end of the film.
As North Americans, I feel like we are constantly checking the time when we go to the movies. We know when the next plot twist is going to happen, you can practically set your watch to the next fight or explosion. I’m embarrassed to say, it took a bit of practice to sit back and let the film unfold at it’s own pace.
Once I relaxed into the story, I could appreciate how much the film’s director borrowed directly from AIDS films of the eighties and nineties and then built on what they did best. I never once felt like my emotions were being manipulated or that I was being preached to. I could separate myself from my own experience with disease and appreciate the film as a bystander.
BPM is a very human film about limited choices and rising to a challenge. As someone who lived through crisis I can say with confidence it is one of the most accurate depictions of what it was like. And though the challenges might be different, the obstacles—wealth and ignorance—are as relevant now as they were then.