Cannes 2017: Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute)

On Film / The Daily — May 20, 2017

“Robin Campillo’s 120 Battements Par Minute [BPM (Beats Per Minute)] is a passionately acted ensemble movie about ACT UP in France in the late 80s, the confrontational direct-action movement which demanded immediate, large-scale research into AIDS,” begins the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “The movie compellingly combines elegy, tragedy, urgency and a defiant euphoria.”

“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,” writes Guy Lodge for Variety.

“Campillo introduces the founding members of the group through the eyes of newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois), who is quickly swept off his feet by the boisterous and charismatic Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), ACT UP’s most outspoken and passionate member,” writes Nikola Grozdanovic at the Playlist. “Sophie (Adèle Haenel) and Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) are not happy about the way Sean and Max (Félix Maritaud) derailed the last ACT UP protest by going off script and restraining the key speaker of the conference they were protesting. These ACT UP debates, of which there are many, with each more immersive than the last, are elemental to the rhythm, humility and humanity that’s ingrained so deeply in 120 BPM.

“This isn’t a characteristic project for Campillo, best known to English-language audiences for The Returned, his Twin Peaks-like TV series about small town residents who come back from the dead, and Eastern Boys, a taut gay thriller in which Russian men posing as prostitutes rob an older man,” suggests IndieWire’s Eric Kohn.120 Beats Per Minute contains no such far-reaching hooks, instead bearing a closer resemblance to the social-realism of Campillo’s screenwriting with collaborator Laurent Cantet, which includes the Palme d’Or-winning high school drama The Class. Like that movie, the main narrative engine of 120 Beats Per Minute is talk—profound debates, casual chatter, furious showdowns—and the sturdy performances that bring it to life.”

“It’s no wonder many are putting the film on the short list for the Palme d’Or,” finds Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson. “Regardless of whether the film wins awards, it’s a vital contribution to queer and political cinema, a testament to crusaders of recent history whose nobility does not overshadow their complicated and individual humanity.”

But for Donald Clarke of the Irish Times,120 Beats is a surprisingly conventional, borderline-vanilla piece of work that fails to properly flesh out its romance or explore the intricacies of its social agendas. When such a film scores its big moment of activism to Bronski Beat’s ‘Smalltown Boy’—a fine song, but familiar—it’s hard not to wish they’d tried just a little harder. At such points, the cosy British film Pride feels less distant than the filmmakers can surely have intended.”

“Drawing inspiration from his own experience as a member of frontline protest organization ACT UP, Campillo brings unquestionable conviction to his mission to ensure that the ineffectual efforts of Francois Mitterand's government at the time and the refusal of French drug companies to expedite treatment research are not forgotten,” writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “Where the screenwriter and editor-turned-director shows less strength is in his sense of economy and pacing.”

“There is a documentary-style urgency to early scenes that feel like eavesdropping on an underground resistance engaged in a war,” notes Allan Hunter in Screen.

“Campillo’s film has a furious forward momentum that’s inspired by the determination of its characters and bolstered by Arnaud Rebotini’s house-music score,” writes Time Out’s Dave Calhoun. “But that same forward movement is occasionally shackled and slowed down by the weight of mourning and loss. This sagging of the shoulders—the lows after the highs—feels appropriate and true, of course, but coupled with some meandering of the story it means that the film can lag and stall. It’s in its more private moments that 120 Beats excels.”

Updates, 5/21: “It's the rare film that documents both a personal story and a larger movement with verve and grace, creating a compelling, often moving experience,” writes Lawrence Garcia in the Notebook. “It’s a precisely drawn portrait of how lines form and groups splinter, of negotiating agendas and tenuous compromise, lent even more urgency by the fact that most of the group are literally fighting for their lives, or for those of their loved ones.”

“What Campillo is offering, basically, is a dramatized, Gallic companion piece to David France’s terrific documentary How to Survive a Plague,” proposes A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club. “So long as the filmmaker keeps his focus on the activism, committed by a group of young men and women who educated themselves to save their ravaged community, 120 Beats Per Minute enthralls. It’s the dramatizing that proves a little less revelatory.”

But for Time Out’s Dave Calhoun, “these are a colorful, funny, engaged bunch, and their humor lightens the film’s inevitable march toward death.”

Fabien Lemercier at Cineuropa: “Superbly edited by the filmmaker himself, who draws on a massive variety of techniques and resources (sublime transitions, archive material and so on), and who strikes a perfect balance between painting a portrait of the group and one of the particular individuals who form part of it, BPM (Beats Per Minute) is simultaneously a very well-documented tribute giving a face to these fighters confined to the shadows, and a sensitive work that is as modest as it is immodest when necessary.”

More in Spanish from Diego Lerer.

Updates, 5/22: “In an extended love scene notable for both its hot-blooded sensuality and its intricate, bittersweet play with memory, 120 Beats Per Minute embraces sex as not just an expression of love or lust,” writes Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times, “but something more—an act of life-sustaining defiance. For these young men with nothing left to lose, it’s the ultimate way of giving death the finger.”

“Irreverent humor isn’t pressed but does crop up as a symptom of placing ideals ahead of sentimentality,” writes Sophie Monks Kaufman at Little White Lies. “One character wants his ashes to be thrown at insurers. In the wake of this event, a serious business discussion ensues regarding what percent of the ashes goes on the insurers, and what percentage to his mother.”

“Campillo rightly conjures the spirit of the period, a decade into the crisis and before the introduction of the cocktail which would eventually help curtail the death toll,” writes Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema. “Chatter about the arguments for a cure vs. a vaccine, as well as a rudimentary lesson on how HIV infects human cells are all part of a history now largely ignored by the gay community . . . Exchanging dramatic hysterics for a portrait of grim determination during a period when public opinion was most certainly not in favor with equal rights for the LGBT community, BPM (Beats Per Minute) is, for once, a stellar consideration for some of the courageous souls who dedicated their lives to the activism which eventually resulted in necessary visibility.”

Updates, 5/23: “Though the film is way too long, the final, deeply moving sequences are created by performances of such subtlety and conviction that the occasional spurt of didactic overkill is quickly forgiven,” writes Sight & Sound editor Nick James. “Maybe there ought to be an ensemble acting prize for it? Savage attacks on the bourgeoisie make up some of the best sequences in Cannes this year (and at an event that insists on black tie in the evenings!). It’s almost as if Luis Buñuel has come back to be the guiding spirit.”

“I wanted the film to encompass a series of metamorphoses and the viewer to not really have time to see how it moves from one scene to the next,” Campillo tells Fabien Lemercier at Cineuropa. “But I also wanted the scenes to contain echoes of what was to come and for the previous scene to linger somewhat too, for there to be a sort of reverberation throughout the whole thing. The film is shot in a rather raw way, but the whole time I was thinking about these links, these impressions. I was thinking about them way back when I was writing the screenplay, but it’s something that really took shape during the editing.”

The Orchard has acquired the U.S. rights, reports Graham Winfrey for IndieWire.

Update, 5/24: The Village Voice’s Bilge Ebiri notes that “Campillo never lets us forget we’re watching the story of a collective, as very different people come together and argue vociferously, all in an effort to act as a unit—imperfect, scrappy, vital.”

Update, 5/26: “Adèle Haenel is so good in her supporting role that you wish her character gained more definition, and it’s not unreasonable to find the near-complete shortage of black faces in the group, or indeed the entire, massively ensemble-led film, borderline puzzling,” writes Tim Robey in the Telegraph. “Still, these reservations don't do anything to hamper the detail and power of the central relationship, which is beautifully played by the restlessly in-your-face Biscayart and the quiet, intent Valois. It’s feasible the two actors could share a prize here, like the leads in the very comparable Blue Is the Warmest Color.

Update, 5/27: “What's slightly disappointing about Campillo’s film is how little we get to understand these characters as anything but activists,” writes Sam C. Mac at the House Next Door. “While the filmmaker is intent on showing ACT UP's activities as a group, away from their protests, their personal lives are only really defined by their relationships to one another.” Still, “120 Beats Per Minute offers not only compelling social-realist ideas on its surface, but finds visually evocative ways to express them.”

Update, 5/28: “The fact that BPM finds the time to deliver no fewer than three very good sex scenes tells you what sort of film it is: measured, generous, radical and queer.” Caspar Salmon for Sight & Sound: “The miracle of BPM is that in depicting a time of great tragedy it deploys not just righteous anger but a bustling and vibrant visual language and a wickedly irreverent tone. The film is truly funny—not just sometimes and not wryly, but often and riotously.”

Update, 5/31: “For a 143-minute film,” writes Blake Williams for Filmmaker, “there is a surprisingly scant number of scenes; each one would reach a point, a beat, where the arc of the central exchange would feel as though it is falling—a sensation perhaps prompted by some internalized institutional convention of how movie scenes are typically structured—only for the writing to swing back up, re-entering and re-opening the dynamic we’d been watching on screen for 5, 10, what might be 20 minutes now. And Campillo isn’t just showing off; his movie has a lived-through sensibility that’s so often missing from historical portraiture.”

Update, 7/4: “The cinematic focus is on the rhythm and emotional flow rather than a timeline of victories and setbacks,” writes Film Comment editor Nicolas Rapold, and Campillo “develops a moving sense of embodiment.”

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