BPM, or 120 battements par minute, to give its more expansive French title, is not the first film to be made about the charismatic activist group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, better known as ACT UP, but it is the most lyrical piece of cinema so far to have emerged from ACT UP’s history. ACT UP, founded in New York, in 1987, has long been recognised for its direct actions – occupying the New York Stock Exchange, for instance, in protest at the prohibitive price of early AIDS drugs – and for its media-savvy deployment of graphics and slogans. The visual power of the group’s activities easily lends itself to filmmaking, and two relatively recent documentaries, How to Survive a Plague and United in Anger, both released in 2012, focus on the activities of ACT UP’s original branch, in New York. BPM departs from these in being a dramatisation, and in looking outside the United States to the work of ACT UP Paris during the early 1990s.
It’s a young crowd, for the most, that fills the scenes of BPM, and in particular the weekly ACT UP meetings that constitute the narrative spine of the film. Some of the activists are HIV-positive, but not all; the majority are gay men, though not all. One haemophiliac teenager, Marco (Théophile Ray), who has contracted HIV through a contaminated blood transfusion, attends the meetings with his mother, Hélène (Catherine Vinatier). A couple of gay women, diplomatic Eva (Aloïse Sauvage) and passionate Sophie (Adèle Haenel), are central to the group’s debates and organising. Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), the group’s HIV-positive chairperson, is focused on medical and pharmaceutical issues pertaining to AIDS treatment, which brings him into conflict with group members who wish to direct their energies towards wider structural issues relating to AIDS prevention, including prison reform and sex education. There is particular friction between Thibault and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a radical so in thrall to his own sense of urgency that he rarely waits his turn to speak. Caught somewhere between these two is Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a new ACT UP member, whom both Thibault and Sean have their eye on.