Robin Campillo’s portrait of ACT UP Paris puts militancy before mourning
The word hangs there, mid-air, in the quiet of a crowded room. It’s one of the first things we hear in the opening scene of Robin Campillo’s 2017 film 120 battements par minute (120 Beats Per Minute, or BPM), a seemingly simple bit of verbal punctuation. We’re at a meeting of ACT UP Paris, a prolific branch of the activist organization founded in New York in response to the AIDS crisis. The year is 1990, and the epidemic has raged for ten years. Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), the organization’s president, informs the group of the death of a founding member in a tone that suggests habituation. And then that conclusion, brutal in its nonchalance: ‘Voilà.’ There it is, the inevitability of premature death, of the loss of those we love. Voilà, our necessary numbness. Voilà, a fight we have no choice but to win.
BPM won the Grand Prix at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, but it’s likely you haven’t heard of it, pushed from view by gay pop hits like Tom of Finland (2017) and Call Me By Your Name (2017). BPM is the first film to make the politics of AIDS – and not just its emotional effects – its central subject in the country where the virus was officially discovered. And most notably of all, it’s a film that prioritizes the community over the individual, the tactics of direct action over the emotional intricacies of grief. I can scarcely think of a better message for confronting the trauma of our current political moment.
Much of the film takes place in that single meeting room. There, we get a detailed account of how one of the most pivotal activist groups of the 20th century revolutionized drug trials and brought attention to an issue the world had ignored. Democratic, radically progressive, intersectional before intersectionality was a word – the proceedings feel, at times, less like a historical account and more like a call to action. This is how you run a revolution. Campillo is careful to highlight the central contributions of lesbians, the effects of the disease on hemophiliacs, and the ways AIDS at once heightened and levelled distinctions between race and class, gender, age and ability. When members quarrel, whole essays and books entailing factious positions in the LGBT community are condensed in rapid-fire dialogue.
Nathan (Arnaud Valois), an HIV-negative gay man, witnesses an internal debate during his very first ACT UP meeting. Pacifists Thibault and Sophie (Adele Haenel) occupy one side of the argument, and on the other sits Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who supports more forceful demonstrations. Beaucratic delays at Melton Pharmaceuticals have stalled the release of crucial research about protease inhibitors, retroviral treatments we now know work well. Sick from toxic drug cocktails and desperate for better treatment, they plan to flyer Melton’s offices and take the test results themselves. Nathan eagerly volunteers. After lobbing a volley of balloons filled with fake blood, the cops arrive and arrest the lot. On the metro home, the mood is elated until one of them asks: ‘Did we need three hours in a police station?’ No time can be wasted when life is slipping quickly away.
The scene cuts to a dancefloor, where we’re reminded that our subjects are just kids; the club is their only excuse for normalcy. Throughout the film, the dancefloor appears like a coda: movements – and life – slow in the stroboscopic light. The club also offers Campillo an opportunity for sentimental cinematographic flourishes, in a film mercifully short of them. As the dancefloor fades from view, dust caught in the beams bouncing off the mirrorball mutates into the virus itself, drifting towards the pearly surface of a T-Cell.
As the film continues, Campillo focuses on Nathan and Sean’s relationship. Valois is irresistible, but Biscayart steals the show with his earth-shattering display of torment over his own mortality and the social dimensions of his disease. Their bond is consummated with the most authentic and unapologetic gay sex scene I’ve ever seen in a movie theatre. At 12 minutes, it’s full of awkward yet tender moments: the peeling off of jeans, the fumble with a lube bottle. Their pillow talk touches on stigma and prevention, homophobia and repression, death and desire. While hovering over Nathan with his back arched in pleasure, Sean describes how he was infected: by his grade school teacher, a married man, when he was only 16. His very first time. Nathan remarks that an elder should have known better. ‘You can’t split responsibility,’ Sean replies. ‘When you infect someone, you’re 100% responsible. And when you get infected too. But what did we know then?’ Fifty years after gay liberation, gay sex remains stigmatized. Sean’s words and actions free it, while committing it to an ethics of respect. Nathan declares that it should be the government’s responsibility to protect people from infection. If only the government agreed. (Reagan didn’t utter the word AIDS until 1985, after 25,000 had died; he subsequently cut funding for AIDS research by 11%. Mitterrand, since beatified by liberals, was even slower to respond.) And what do we know now?
At this point, BPM begins to drag, as it leaves group politics behind for the closed emotional circuit between Nathan and Sean. Campillo’s portrayal of Sean’s death is heart-wrenching, but a long digression for a simple, universalist appeal to empathy. Subtle details contain volumes: when Sean begins to tune out in a doctor’s office, she gives him a referral for a specialist who ‘sees AIDS patients early in the morning’, since other patients are too afraid to be near them. Grander gestures, meanwhile, seem slightly hollow: as Nathan dances alone to Bronski Beat’s ‘Smalltown Boy’, the music fades to Sean’s rasping breaths from a Paris hospital bed. The camera then pans over the Seine, dyed the colour of blood.
Such flourishes are risky, but in one such case they work. During a meeting, Jeremie – a 19-year-old positive college student – gets a nosebleed, while discussing how to make more fake blood for a demonstration. The scene cuts to real footage of ACT UP Paris protests, and we hear Jeremie’s voice as he reads from a history of the June Days of 1848, which resulted in the slaughter of young, unemployed labourers by the National Guard, who paraded their corpses through the streets. ‘This will be my political burial,’ he says, and we know that Jeremie is dead. The group marches before a hearse, carrying signs with his photograph – another name, another face, another hopeless appeal. The scene makes Jeremie a martyr, not a victim.
Ultimately, Sean’s death returns us to the film’s solidarity narrative. As his body grows cold, friends hold an impromptu wake. They discuss plans for his burial and draft a communiqué for Thibault to read before next week’s meeting. It’s a gruesome, but uplifting routine: ACT UP was Sean’s family, and even his mother is surprised by their support. As they help dress his corpse and get the flat in order, Campillo illustrates that no one can go it alone. Perhaps the irreconcilability of these two plots – the intimate and romantic, the collectivist and political – are reflective of our conflicted responses to AIDS. A single love story should not distract us from BPM’s revolutionary impulse. As Douglas Crimp famously argued, we need both ‘mourning and militancy’. This film gives us just that.
The surprise success of this season, Call Me By Your Name, is a charmingly conventional film about a summer fling between a 17 year-old boy and his father’s 25-year-old male assistant. (Is its unsexiness an apology for ‘pederasty’?) Set in an Italian villa, its characters inhabit a privileged closet; the year is 1983, but AIDS is never mentioned. Can we, should we, demand more from queer cinema than the same old stories, shellacked by the same old nostalgia? Sometimes education must eclipse emotional entertainment, voilà. BPM makes me hopeful for a revolutionary queer cinema, a cinema that acts up and fights back.
Main image: Robin Campillo, 120 Beats Per Minute, 2017, film still. Courtesy: Memento Films