Movies depicting the horror of the HIV/AIDS crisis often frame it as the catastrophic end of the party, building up gay abandon only to bring it all crashing down with a brutal cull of beautiful bodies, now broken.
An understandable impulse, given the unimaginable scale of loss, but historically that narrative has sometimes fed into counter-intuitive moralising that somehow the queer community brought this disaster upon themselves.
BPM (120 Battements Par Minute) doesn’t shy away from great pain as it depicts the fiercely inventive protests of HIV/AIDS activist group Act Up Paris. The film was triumphant at last week’s Césars, where it took home six awards, including Best Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor for Antoine Reinartz and Most Promising Actor for Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, to add to last year’s Cannes Grand Prix.
Co-writer Philippe Mangeot (pictured below) shares the screenplay award with director Robin Campillo. Their glorious monument to Act Up’s heroism also depicts the unadulterated joy and crackling eroticism of these impassioned lovers and fighters, all set to a pulsing score.
“Act Up was the sexiest group in the world,” a disarming Mangeot offers, leaning forward in his chair with a rascal’s smile as we drink coffee at the Alliance Française’s stately headquarters in Melbourne. “I mean, we spent a lot of time in hospitals and in cemeteries, but at the same time we were young and beautiful and in love.”
Set at the height of the crisis in the early '90s amid deadly political and pharmaceutical inaction, the serodiscordant relationship between impish back-chatting Act Up member Sean (Biscayart), an HIV-positive man, and the more reserved, HIV-negative Nathan (Arnaud Valois) is the passionate heart of this effervescent film.
Mangeot, a writer and teacher who regularly contributes to French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, is HIV-positive. Determined to fight for his community, he was the 11th member of Act Up Paris, joining a few months after its inception and going on to become president from 1997-99. He penned most of the group’s forthright literature.
Campillo, who is HIV-negative, joined Act Up as an ally in 1993, and the pair have been close friends ever since. Mangeot says the future director immediately caught his eye, but Mangeot had a lover at the time. Not unlike Thibault (Reinartz), the third protagonist in BPM’s very French love affair, I suggest?
“We never had sex,” Mangeot responds, smiling roguishly again, though I protest I had no intention of going there. “I don’t know why we didn’t, to be honest. We were friends, but I did fancy him. But I am glad we didn’t, because I think then this film never would have happened.”
Mangeot’s irreverence saturates the film, which is as funny as it is sexy. He and Campillo’s first-hand experience also infuses it with authenticity, from advising makeup artists on getting Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions right to prominently depicting the often airbrushed-out lesbian contribution to the cause, particularly in the role of Sophie (Adèle Haenel). It’s also there in the heated debate sequences, complete with finger snapping instead of applause.
“Act Up was a question of performance,” Mangeot says. “That’s why we decided to open it with the protest where a man is handcuffed, provoking discussion about whether or not that was OK. Did they go too far?”
Even when Act Up’s meetings got white hot, requiring a time out, Mangeot says there was power in that. “We were always arguing, but sometimes that was our way of saying that we loved each other. And sometimes it was what we needed, in fact, to explode. It was a release.”
BPM, which is screening at both the Alliance Française French Film Festival and the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, is also bolder than most in showing the reality of death. When the protagonists lose someone central, there’s no flinching from it. We stay with the body and the aftermath long after most films would artfully fade to a funeral, then black.
“The film is full of ghosts,” Mangeot pauses. “Robin and I were once confronted with a question of euthanasia, and while BPM is not exactly how it happened, it’s something we had never spoken about in 25 years. That was hard, but necessary. Maybe 25 years is the time we needed to heal, but it was important that we sat with the body in this film.”
Édouard Manet’s striking The Dead Toreador is one of Mangeot’s favourite paintings for this very reason, compelling you to look at death. “It’s incredible. It’s just the body, no sky or anything else. It makes me cry, and that was really important [for BPM], right at the end.”
As was casting the right people. Campillo and Mangeot gathered auditioning actors in the university lecture hall where the Act Up meetings are staged, encouraging them to play with their script. The resulting improvisations fed into a new draft.
Quite unplanned, Mangeot insists, the majority of the main players are openly gay or lesbian actors. “All the heteros, even very good actors, they didn’t find the voice. They didn’t understand when you can be more sissy or less sissy, that kind of modulation, and all the gays knew exactly how to do it.”
Seeing the impassioned ensemble on-set in '90s-style jeans transported Mangeot, who notes that it was sometimes hard to predict when the well of emotions brought up would get to him. “Maybe the cut is one centimetre more, but I watched them walking in those jeans and it’s incredible, because one centimetre changes completely the way you move and suddenly I got the impression that they were us. I was back, and it was so moving.”
These days, Mangeot has taken a step back from the front lines of HIV activism as the situation in France has shifted from a terrifying death sentence to a battle against stigma. “The way I think is still in the '90s,” he says. “I can’t translate it. It’s the job of someone else now.”
He remains proud of the BPM cast for doing their bit to enshrine what Act Up fought so very hard to achieve. “They were so involved. They played their parts with love, because they knew it is about their collective history.”
BPM (Beats per Minute)
Wednesday 26 February, 9:30PM on SBS World Movies (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Director: Robin Campillo
Starring: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adèle Haenel, Félix Maritaud
What's it about?
In Paris in the early 1990s, a group of activists goes to battle for those stricken with HIV/AIDS, taking on sluggish government agencies and major pharmaceutical companies in bold, invasive actions. The organisation is ACT UP, and its members, many of them gay and HIV-positive, embrace their mission with a literal life-or-death urgency. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.