Cannes review: 120 BPM (120 beats per minute) (2017)

In BPM director Robin Campillo turns his naturalistic documentary-style technique from The Class onto a group of AIDS activists during the epidemic of the 1990s in a sober, moving, tender and compassionate film.


by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Joyful, tragic, intimate, compassionate – in BPM Robin Campillo (The Class) starts with a group of French AIDS activists in the 1990s and creates a fiction, informed by his own personal experience, that feels like a documentary.

The film moves between collective and individual experience. The dynamics of the meetings of the Act Up activist group that the film focuses on shape the relationship between the characters. The fiction and the story emerge from whole group. There’s no hint at first as to which members will emerge to be the central characters, all are individuated, but slowly a tender and moving love story develops between two of the men, one of them one of the founders, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who is HIV+, and the other new recruit Nathan (Arnaud Valois), who is not.

Society was different in the 1990s, director Robin Campillo says. The AIDs epidemic had been going for ten years yet people hardly dared to speak out about it. “I wanted to depict this group as a brain giving thought to what needed to be done. At these meetings people felt free to speak, they felt liberated.” The Act Up debate scenes, fronted by Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), that Compillo represents in the BPM seem incredibly naturalistic and improvised, yet they were precisely rehearsed and scripted. They were rehearsed for two days and filmed with three cameras. Campillo rewrote the script during rehearsals and made changes to the lighting, and even the clothes or positioning.

So many young people who were HIV positive had no future at that time, but they engaged in a collective struggle to make society aware and to get the drugs they needed, he says. That no longer exists today – only recently the media reported that HIV+ people who are on medication now had the same life expectancy as anyone else – but these activist groups really achieved something in their time, Campillo says.

The characters in the film are young people who know they are going to die soon and the film shows the difficulty – and courage – of living a love story with someone who is sick. There are long, tender scenes of lovemaking, with superb performances from Biscayart and Valois at the different stages in their relationship that are powerful, moving and intense.

The scenes of strident activism in the offices of a pharmaceutical company, led by Sophie (Adèle Haenel) or at Gay Pride are intercut with scenes clubbing and strobe lighting or abstract molecules in a way that seems completely in keeping – these are people in their twenties that want to live life, not have it taken away from them. BPM is a moving experience.

BPM won the FIPRESCI Critics’ Prize for the Official Selection/Competition at the Cannes Film Festival 2017.

BPM is showing in the Official Selection at the 70th Cannes Film Festival.

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