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

On Film / The Daily — Oct 8, 2017

The New York Film Festival presents BPM (Beats Per Minute) tonight and tomorrow, and we begin with Jordan Cronk, writing for Cinema Scope: “A sprawling yet affectingly personal portrait of a group of Parisian activists and ACT UP members in the early ’90s, Robin Campillo’s follow-up to the ambitious social thriller Eastern Boys (2013) is defined by a nuanced understanding of group dynamics and the delicate nature of sociopolitical resistance—traits no doubt informed by the Moroccan-born French filmmaker’s firsthand experience as part of the storied AIDS organization during the same period. . . . BPM (which took home the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes) doubles down on the writer-director’s vernacular interests, presenting the ACT UP meetings as raucous and passionate displays of anger, compassion, and fraught solidarity.”

“Much of the film is spent indoors, obsessively steeped in the debate that ACT UP Paris’s members have about the ethical, practical, and logistical implications of their actions,” writes Slant’s Ed Gonzalez. “These debates are never less than impassioned, and the anger with which words are sometimes volleyed about here is always understood to come not from a place of hate, but from a place of fear . . . That the sounds of finger-snapping and hissing throughout these meetings are so intuitively understood as substitutes for the more disruptive clangor of applause and boos, respectively, is just one of the ways that Campillo and co-screenwriter Philippe Mangeot convey how the rhetoric of AIDS activism has evolved in the short years since ACT UP’s founding in New York.”

“The story eventually settles on one relationship, between newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and vocal, lively activist Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart),” notes Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice. “The former’s awakening—going from novice to fully engaged activist, and from shy, hunky wallflower to lover and caretaker—is a poignant reminder of how, in the darkest of times, finding one’s tribe and sense of purpose can make all the difference.”

“The difference between liking and loving BPM might hinge on your reaction to how the restive public panoramas of the first half give way to more intimate dramas in the second,” suggests Nick Davis in Film Comment. “Is Campillo rooting politics where it belongs, in the personal, or somewhat narrowing his vision? . . . This is pedagogical cinema made warm and rousing—lively, and against heavy odds.”

“It's true that the film is setting up a fairly clear-cut division between theory and practice, or perhaps more accurately between social and personal activism,” writes Michael Sicinski. And “I would argue that this relationship means something unique in context, coming as it does after the meticulous examination of the organization, function, and direct actions of ACT-UP Paris. It is literally a love that has been won through struggle, something these men fought for to the very last.”

In Gay City News, Steve Erickson suggests that “Campillo’s lack of prudishness is distinctly un-American: one scene starts with the beginnings of sex, turns into a discussion of how Sean became HIV-positive, and eventually turns back into an explicit sex scene. The finale crosscuts among sex, dancing, and a protest: pretty much every base is covered.”

For Cosmo Bjorkenheim at Screen Slate, “despite its 144-minute runtime, BPM never drags. That's because, if you're like me, you'll find yourself taken in by this community of militants, embraced as an adoptive son.”

Earlier: Reviews from Cannes.

Update, 10/9: “I wanted it to be haunted by the exterior, by the actions,” Campillo tells Film Comment editor Nicolas Rapold. “I’m trying to make films with different forms in it, like a metamorphosis. Like you, the film is going through a metamorphosis, because I have this feeling that in everyday life, we go from one form to another—because we are in love, because we take drugs, because we are in a club… It’s not the same perception of the world that we have at different moments, so I wanted the film to recreate this.”

Update, 10/11: “At a handful of instances, BPM breaks to a dimly lit club where the ACT UP-Paris participants dance and sway to pounding four-on-the-floor club music,” writes Jeff Reichert at Reverse Shot. “In several of these sequences, Campillo tilts his camera upward toward the flashing lights and racks focus to highlight the dust particles caught up in the glowing beams. Those particles then gradually morph into molecules circulating in space, coming apart and together, performing their own kind of dance. Cinema has so often been relegated to being a vehicle for the transmission of stories that moments like these, which track on pure sensation, are often excised. In Campillo we have a filmmaker easily able to bend narrative to his will, to make the act of telling stories with moving pictures fresh again, and who is also fascinated with the physical properties of his medium. It’s a potent mix.”

Update, 10/14: Chandler Levack talks with Campillo for the TIFF Review.

Updates, 10/22:BPM never feels like a bulletin from the past,” writes A. O. Scott in the New York Times. “Its immediacy comes in part from the brisk naturalism of the performances and the nimbleness and fluidity of the editing. The characters are so vivid, so real, so familiar that it’s impossible to think of their struggles—and in some cases their deaths—as unfolding in anything but the present tense. And even though some of the battles their real-life counterparts fought have been at least partly won, their anger feels urgent and unassuaged. They were fighting for their lives, and also forging a template of resistance.”

Campillo “conjugates the past tense into a form of the present perfect,” writes Melissa Anderson at 4Columns. “Through die-ins on cold Paris streets, the storming of pharmaceutical companies, heated discussions in that cavernous classroom and cozier apartments, and ecstatic gyrating on the dance floor, BPM reminds us again and again of the kinetic power of the group, of the tremendous vitality that results from so many disparate, ardent individuals united in fight.”

“BPM is vital for the history it depicts,” writes David Edelstein at Vulture, “but it’s also important in the here and now, as a testament to public action—even messy, not-always-effective public action. The characters look around and see their society functioning smoothly, as if there wasn’t a plague in its midst. Comparisons to the present are always dangerous, but let’s live dangerously: The very ecosystem is collapsing around us, with omens coming faster and faster of the catastrophe to come. We should watch BPM and ask, ‘How disruptive are we willing to be?’”

Also at Vulture, Tim Murphy argues that “it’s no surprise that France, with its traditionally deeper socialist regard for the messy collective rather than the rugged individual, beat America to the punch in creating a film that shows how changes in dealing with HIV/AIDS actually happened: in long, difficult meetings; among many people of different priorities, dispositions, genders and sexualities; and never magically.”

BPM recounts with precision an era in which people died in part because governments tacitly (and sometimes not tacitly) agreed worldwide that a particular virus was punishment for deviant behavior and thus not something that deserved urgent attention,” writes Glenn Kenny at RogerEbert.com. “The tactics of ACT UP were deemed ‘extremist’ by many. This movie demonstrates the humanity of these activists, people whose backs were against a wall. It does so with humor, compassion, affinity, and no condescension.”

“It's a challenge to dramatize characters within an intentionally leaderless collective, so BPM generally treats the organization itself as the protagonist,” writes Andrew Lapin for NPR. “The camera, eye-level with the crowd, seems to take up the space of a member, so we feel involved in these fights over exactly how radical to push the next demonstration . . . Your decision-making calculus changes when you have to fight the world for every heartbeat.”

The Village Voice’s Bilge Ebiri talks with Campillo, Valois, and Biscayart “about BPM‘s diverse mix of styles, the legacy of ACT UP, and the film’s beautiful, touching sex scenes.”

Updates, 10/24: “Who among us, besides fascists and racists, has not felt at some point this year like we are living in a nightmare from which we may never survive?” asks Adam Baran at the Talkhouse. “In a year in which thousands of people all over the country have formed activist groups which put the techniques of ACT UP (and other resistance movements) to practice, there’s no better, more urgent, more vital piece of cinema than this riveting film.”

Jude Dry at IndieWire: “Luca Guadagnino’s dreamy romance Call Me By Your Name has been an early Oscar contender since its Sundance debut, Joachim Trier’s cerebral sci-fi Thelma is Norway’s official entry for Best Foreign Language film, and British filmmaker Francis Lee made a splashy debut with the austere romance God’s Own Country. In other words, Moonlight was just the beginning. . . . Despite the heavy competition, however, Robin Campillo’s exquisite BPM (Beats Per Minute) stands out as the most authentically queer film of the bunch.”

“I was 20 at the beginning of the epidemic in ’82 in France,” Campillo tells E. Alex Jung, who also talks with the cast for Vulture. “I was going back to the closet, mostly. I thought I was going to die. It was a kind of denial.” Jung: “ACT UP woke him up.”

Update, 10/26: Like so many, the Ringer’s K. Austin Collins zooms in on the dust hovering over the dance floor. “Soon we zoom in and that dust becomes molecules, and soon after that those molecules resemble germs. Germs are everywhere in the air of this safe place. Despite this, there is no fear. We share in it. It’s a radical idea of queer life under siege that suffuses the entire movie.”

Update, 10/30: For the Seventh Row, Elena Lazic talks with Campillo, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, and Arnaud Valois.

Updates, 11/3: “The historical context of the film resounded poignantly in today’s political landscape, with left-wing melancholia on the one hand and right-wing attacks of security of sexual freedom on the other,” writes Carlos Kong for photogénie. “The passionate energy ciphered into the activist project that BPM portrays thus serves as a model of what remains possible in a moment saturated with political dismay.”

Stephen Saito talks with Campillo “about being ready personally and professionally to create such a vital cinematic experience, finding ways to conjure the same energy he felt when he was an activist in ACT UP in making the film and being conscious of making history.”

Update, 11/6: For Film International, Tom Ue talks with Campillo about how BPM “relates to contemporaneous projects, and how he understands Nathan, Sean, and Thibault.”

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