French film “BPM (Beats Per Minute)”, which is released here in South Korea as “120 BPM”, gives us a vivid glimpse into the activities of the Paris chapter of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in the early 1990s. As constantly cornered by the continuing spread of the AIDS epidemic and the frustratingly slow response of pharmaceutical companies and their government during that dark, desperate time, those people of the Paris chapter of ACT UP kept trying to bring out changes nonetheless, and the movie powerfully presents their struggle, pain, and spirit while dexterously mixing personal and social/political elements together in its compelling human drama.
The movie opens with a group of ACT UP members preparing for their another public demonstration, which is soon going to be committed at a government conference on the ongoing AIDS epidemic. Shortly after one key speaker starts his presentation on the stage, they suddenly appear from the backstage with their urgent slogans and messages, and they surely capture everyone’s attention right from the start, but then they find themselves going a little too far with fake blood bombs.
In the following scene, we see a routine evening meeting among ACT UP members, and their heated discussion is intercut with the flashback shots of the aforementioned demonstration. While some members think that accidental moment involved with fake blood bombs does not help their cause much as generating more negative public image, other members believe that it will bring more public attention to their cause at least, and Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), a no-nonsense gay guy who has been the official leader of the group, and other several key members try their best for balancing their group between pragmatism and idealism.
As the movie engages us more via the raw spontaneity generated on the screen during this wonderfully unaffected scene, we get to know a little more about a number of notable ACT UP members besides Thibault. Sophie (Adèle Haenel), one of a few female members in the group, is honest and passionate whenever she speaks in front of other members, and that is why she often finds herself in opposition to Thibault’s moderate position. In case of a gentle middle-aged woman named Hélène (Catherine Vinatier), she joined the group after her hemophiliac teenager son Marco (Théophile Ray) became HIV positive due to contaminated blood, and Marco is also active in the group as shown from a brief amusing scene where he shows other member how to make good fake blood in a bathtub.
And we also get to know Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a young, spirited gay man who has struggled with his HIV positive status like many ACT UP members. Although always well aware that he may die within a few years, he maintains his outspoken attitude in the group meetings, and he keeps his spirit high when he and his fellow ACT UP members try to spread their messages during the annual gay pride parade held in Paris.
Meanwhile, Sean gets romantically involved with Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a handsome dude who recently joins the group. Because Nathan is HIV negative, Sean is rather reluctant to open himself to Nathan despite their apparent mutual attraction, but then they soon find themselves together in Sean’s small residence. Of course, they use condoms for safety, and they also have a frank conversation on how Sean got himself infected with HIV during his adolescent years.
As sensitively depicting the development of their relationship, the movie continues to focus on the ongoing efforts of ACT UP members, and director Robin Camapillo, who wrote the screenplay along with his co-writer Philippe Mangeot, provides a number of riveting dramatic moments. At one point, ACT UP members go to a high school for imparting more knowledge on AIDS to its students, and they surely make a big impression on many students. While they often do aggressive demonstrations against a big pharmaceutical company for demanding the public release of its recent AIDS drug research, they also have a modest private meeting along with its representatives and other AIDS activist groups, which are also not so pleased about the slow response from the government and pharmaceutical companies.
While it often seems that there is not much progress, time keeps running out for many ACT UP members as usual. There is a sad, poignant moment involved with one young member who unfortunately succumbs to a health complication resulted from AIDS, and then there comes an inevitable point where Sean and Nathan’s relationship is severely tested. The final part of the movie is melodramatic indeed, but it is somberly handled with considerable restraint, and the result is emotionally resonant to say the least.
Overall, “BPM (Beats Per Minute)”, which received four awards including the Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film festival early in last year and was also selected as the French entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2018 Academy Awards, is a powerful work to admire for its sensitive and thoughtful storytelling as well as its well-rounded performances, and it deserves to be watched with along with HBO film “The Normal Heart” (2014) and Oscar-nominated documentary film “How to Survive a Plague” (2012). While things have changed a lot during last two decades, its subjects feel timeless with its palpable human heart beats considering that our world still needs more progress for sexual minority people, and it surely reminds us that we all must strive for that instead of silence and negligence.