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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives on the West End with his lovely wife Emily, where they watch all the movies ever made. When not digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: November 28, 2017

Award-winning French film commands audiences to remember the lessons of the AIDS epidemic

Written by: Dennis Perkins
Aloïse Sauvage as Eva, Arnaud Valois as Nathan and Adele Haenel as Sophie in a scene from "BPM (Beats Per Minute." Photos courtesy of The Orchard

Aloïse Sauvage as Eva, Arnaud Valois as Nathan and Adele Haenel as Sophie in a scene from “BPM (Beats Per Minute.”
Photos courtesy of The Orchard

In the final act of “BPM (Beats Per Minute),” the new French film about AIDS activists in late 1980s and early ’90s Paris, one member of the Paris chapter of ACT UP eulogizes another by saying that he “lived politics in the first person.”

That’s an apt summation of this stirring, heartbreaking but uncompromisingly clear-eyed film from director Robin Campillo. The film follows a group of young, French AIDS activists as they strategize about how best to force the hand of a society and a government unwilling to confront the devastating epidemic decimating their various communities. Screening at PMA Films from Friday to Sunday, the film (presented in collaboration Maine HIV/AIDS prevention and support organization Frannie Peabody Center) is an unsparing, deeply human drama and a uniquely authentic, inspirational and instructional blueprint for resistance, even in the face of overwhelming institutional prejudice and the merciless pressure of advancing death.

Campillo, who co-wrote the luminous teacher docudrama “The Class” in 2008, was himself a member of ACT UP (aka AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in the years his film is set. And one thing that sets “BPM” apart from other well-meaning issue-oriented dramas is the ground-level insider’s perspective he brings to the group’s activities and decision-making. Other high-profile AIDS films (like “Philadelphia” and “Dallas Buyer’s Club,” to name two), as good and honorable in intent as they are, filter the era when this new, terrifying disease swept the world through a beneficent outsider’s voice and through invariably straight lead actors. (“Dallas Buyers Club,” especially, slighted the similar work being done in bringing experimental AIDS drugs to people who needed them by focusing almost entirely on the resolutely straight, strutting performance of Matthew McConaughey.)

Nahuel Pérez Biscayart

Nahuel Pérez Biscayart

Here, the film is just as defiantly true to the largely LGBTQ activists who banded together to force the issue of AIDS prevention, treatment and acceptance into the face of a public all too willing to write the disease off as “a gay problem.” Or one centered on other groups (prostitutes, prisoners, addicts) who were often blamed for their own misfortune.

Part of Campillo’s success in “BPM” is how he depicts the fractious, messy, often counterproductive infighting that besets any movement. The people of the film’s Paris ACT UP chapter are all on the same side, but that doesn’t make theirs a unified movement. The film is centered on the lecture hall where the chapter meets to plan its provocative actions. There, the group’s diplomatic head, Thibault (Antione Reinartz) tries to strike a balance between the group’s attempts to find common ground with more moderate AIDS organizations and the rabble-rousing, sometimes shocking tactics of more militant members, like the HIV-positive Sean (the outstanding Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who continually remind the group that not everyone involved has the luxury of time.

The structure of the first half of the film alternates between the group’s debates in that classroom and its subsequent actions, such as storming the pharmaceutical company that’s sitting on potentially beneficial treatments, interrupting high school classrooms to disseminate safe sex information and condoms or dousing a stonewalling government health minister with fake blood. In these actions, the group constantly splits on what will most effectively break into the public consciousness and force the government and medical industry to acknowledge the AIDS crisis, without ever portraying even the most potentially divisive voice as necessarily wrong. Instead, Campillo shows the increasing pressure the movement is under as the inexorable attrition inflicted by time and the virus takes its toll.

The film gradually moves to take in the growing love story between the vocal Sean and a new group member, the handsome and HIV-negative Nathan (Arnaud Valois, also excellent). It seems at first like a softening of the first half’s nuts-and-bolts activism, even as their story and that of their cause become inevitably and wrenchingly linked. (The film eschews soundtrack music, except in scenes like the group’s cathartically joyous Gay Pride march, or the intermittent scenes where we see the ever-dwindling cast of characters dancing with abandon in a dark nightclub.)

The actors make Sean and Nathan’s journey deeply affecting even as the film never succumbs to sentimentality, instead crafting their story as the resolutely human, straightforwardly physical side of the political fight to which they and their comrades have committed themselves. As the film ends, that aforementioned eulogy is exemplified in how the ACT UP activists mourn their colleague with the one final action he willed them to undertake – a messy, defiantly angry gesture of solidarity and of love.

“BPM,” like its characters, doesn’t ask for your attention, it commands it, through fine acting and a measured, even-handed view of political activism. And through a persistent anger that, still today, there are those who would allow their own prejudices to color the response to human suffering. The film, which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, comes to Portland at a time when the LGBTQ community and many others are mobilizing against injustice. “BPM” provides an example from our recent past of all the complexities involved in bringing people together for a common good and counsels that, indeed, political action is most effective when it is most human.

“BPM (Beats Per Minute)” is playing at PMA Films (portlandmuseum.org/events/movies) on Friday at 2 and 6 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. The film runs 2 hours, 20 minutes and, though not rated, is intended for mature audiences. Tickets are $8/$6 for members and students with ID.


COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS

NICKELODEON CINEMA
Starts Friday: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” People should know better than to mess with Frances McDormand (either in real life or on film), which makes this rambunctious drama about a resolute mother who puts up the titular billboards to shame the police after her daughter’s murder another chance to see the actress do her thing (and probably net another Oscar nomination).

SPACE GALLERY
Tuesday, Dec. 5: “Trash Dance.” In this unexpectedly lovely and inspirational documentary, filmmaker Andrew Garrison and choreographer Allison Orr team up with the hard-working men and women of the Austin, Texas, sanitation department for a one-night-only spectacle you’ve got to see to believe.

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