It takes close to an hour before any backstories emerge for the ensemble cast of AIDS activists in “BPM (Beats Per Minute).” Before then, Robin Campillo’s engrossing drama lingers in heated strategy sessions and hectic activism, as the members of France’s early ‘90s ACT UP movement toss fake blood at their targets in between arguments about the effectiveness of their tactics. Rather than attempting any big twists, Campillo lingers in this passionate world, sketching out the nature of their cause before filling in the details. The only real character arc is that sick people keep getting sicker.
This isn’t a characteristic project for Campillo, best known to English-language audiences for “They Live,” the film that inspired the “Twin Peaks”-like TV series “The Returned,” and “Eastern Boys,” a taut gay thriller in which Russian men posing as prostitutes rob an older man. “BPM” 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 “BPM” is talk — profound debates, casual chatter, furious showdowns — and the sturdy performances that bring it to life.
While hardly groundbreaking filmmaking, the movie’s familiar trajectory displays a patient approach to exploring the movement across a leisurely two hours and 20 minutes, sometimes to the detriment of the soulful material at its core. Nevertheless, assembling the story out of small moments and gripping exchanges, Campillo grounds this earnest drama in a sense of purpose.
Inspired by the American version of ACT UP that was established in 1989, the French version follows many of the same rules: Participants gather to share their ideas about the best way to protest pharmaceutical companies unwilling to share their research on potential AIDS medication, and plot other tactics for gaining the attention of media and politicians. They’re told, in the blunt opening scene, to act as though they’re HIV positive whether or not they possess the disease. But many of them do, including Sean (Argentinean actor Nahuel Perez Biscayart), a petite young man with astounding drive who flings himself into the center of every conversation.
With time, he falls for the older Nathan (Arnaud Valois), as the couple join forces with the rest of the group to disrupt public demonstrations and invade offices in lively showdowns that typically end with them cuffed by the police. Campillo captures these frantic crowd scenes with an involving, naturalistic style that explores the messiness of their approach, not quite endorsing its effectiveness but empathizing with its rationales. Other members of the collective come and go, including Sophie (the ever-reliable Adele Hanele), who runs a tight ship but is often prone to outbursts.
Ultimately, the movie finds Nathan and Sean sharing their histories in intimate pillow talk, and the credibility of their romance expands the movie’s frame just in time for a moving third act, as Sean’s physical condition starts to deteriorate. Campillo doesn’t shy away from expressionistic images to convey the Sean’s dire prospects, including a nightmarish sequence in which he imagines the Seine filled with blood, but the movie works best at hovering in the detailed conversations about the nature of their fight. The young Biscayart carries the movie with astonishing energy, imbuing his dwindling physical condition with a powerful spirit of resilience that fits in with the nuanced environment. Campillo’s dialogue is rich with slang (HIV-positive victims are termed the “pos”), complex breakdowns of the ACT UP intentions (“putting the disease on the street”) and flashes of humor (everyone gets a chuckle out of the suggestion of the cheesy tagline, “AIDS is all of us”), all of which makes the movie utterly engrossing even as little progress is made.
While “BPM” never quite takes off into the emotional intensity suggested by the material, it nevertheless arrives at a powerful raison d’etre, with layers of its ecosystem slowly assembling until a fully defined revolt reveals itself. The finale is a masterstroke of editing, as Campillo merges lively dance floor action and activist antics until they blur together as one. It’s a brilliant cap to a movie fixated on one point above all — no matter the desperation of this battlefield, the communal bonds ensure that the party rages on.
“BPM (Beats Per Minute)” premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.