Film Review: ‘BPM (Beats Per Minute)’ Relives the AIDS Crisis with Love and Understanding

“Damn, so soon.” This is the immediate response given by one of the characters in “BPM (Beats Per Minute),” upon hearing of the death of another. Uttered at a climactic point in the film, it conveys the urgent crisis of the AIDS epidemic being depicted. But it may also be your own response at the end of this thoroughly engaging film, which this year’s French submission for the Foreign Language Oscar. “BPM (Beats Per Minute)” is so fascinating and lovingly crafted that it leaves you wanting more.

Directed by Robin Campillo, the film takes place in the early 1990s, when AIDS was ravaging major cities around the world. Paris is one such place, where an activist group works tirelessly to raise awareness and find solutions to the epidemic. The group is called ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and its members comprise an array persons both HIV positive and negative, with particular emphasis on the highly vulnerable gay community. They meet weekly to brainstorm ideas for protests and to discuss new treatments and awareness campaigns. But for some of them, like the outspoken Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), progress can’t come quickly enough. The clock is ticking, as the disease claims more lives every day.

Having recently tasted Oscar success as a screenwriter on “The Class”, Robin Campillo applies the same no-frills approach from the director’s chair in his third feature. Aside from a few elegant transitional sequences, Campillo chronicles the lives of the film’s activists with a realism that gives it the feel of a docudrama. Exploring the various facets (science, behavior, sexuality, politics, education) of the AIDS debate with a journalistic level of interest, the film has a visceral sense of time and place. And by structuring the narrative around ACT UP’s weekly meetings, he immerses the audience as a participant in both the planning and execution of their activities. As we witness these enthrallingly dynamic and impeccably organized brainstorming sessions, the passion is infectious. They almost compel you to contribute as if you are actually there.

Indeed, the film is as much about the highly emotional atmosphere of fear, denial, love and hate surrounding the AIDS crisis, as it is about reminding us of the impressive activism of groups like ACT UP. Armed with placards, fake blood and the ashes of the deceased, they are like soldiers in a war. And Campillo directs these protests with an intensity befitting their importance. There may be no awe-inspiring setpieces, but the film still has an epic feel due to its acute sense that this sprawling ensemble is fighting for a cause that is bigger than themselves.

Within the macro level actions, Campillo also carves out intimate spaces in the script for humor, romance, and music. In particular, he pinpoints the burgeoning relationship between a new member of ACT UP (Nathan, played by Arnaud Valois) and one of its most vocal stalwarts Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), to put a sympathetic human face on the crisis. Handled with delicate care by Campillo and portrayed with alterating vitality and vulnerability by Valois and Biscayart, their private moments give a palpable sense of what’s at stake and the beautiful humanity that’s being lost.

Ironically, the engrossing intrigue Campillo stimulates with this central relationship is what eventually makes “BPM (Beats Per Minute)” feel like an incomplete story. The audience becomes so invested that we want to know more about the other characters and the outcomes of the research they so desperately rely on. The ending, therefore, feels abrupt but hopeful. The film’s title (originally “120 Beats Per Minute”) refers to the beating heart. And as it sends us off with the throbbing sounds of electro dance music, the film’s message is clear. The beat – and the lives affected by AIDS – must go on.

“BPM (Beats Per Minute)” is now playing in select theaters.

GRADE: (★★★)