This engrossing film, about Parisian activists fighting the AIDS pandemic in the early 1990s, recently won the Grand Prix at Cannes and will represent France in the Oscar race for foreign-language film.
Young bodies gyrate, sway and sometimes fall into a hot embrace in the most ecstatic moments of “BPM (Beats Per Minute),” a restless, engrossing, dramatic portrait of Parisian activists fighting the AIDS pandemic in the early 1990s. Pitched between the long, anxious scenes of group discussion that make up much of the narrative, these dance sequences, awash in throbbing electronica and neon-blue lighting, play like bursts of abstract punctuation — an opportunity for the characters to get some much-needed downtime.
The act of dancing is, of course, its own form of protest, a defiant expression of life from a group toiling in the shadow of death. One longtime member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), welcoming a few new recruits to their first meeting, instructs them to express agreement with a speaker not by clapping their hands, but by snapping their fingers, which will limit disruptions and keep the discussion moving.
For these activists, some of whom we see popping AZT and other pills during meetings, there isn’t a moment to waste.
‘BPM (Beats Per Minute),’ with Antoine Reinartz, Adele Haenel, Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois. Directed by Robin Campillo, from a screenplay by Campillo and Philippe Mangeot. 140 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. In French, with English subtitles. Dine-In Seattle 10 (21+).
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“BPM” is steeped in such vividly specific details, and it moves with the same crackling urgency. The movie, which recently won the Grand Prix at Cannes and will represent France in the Oscar race for foreign-language film, is a highly personal project for its writer-director, Robin Campillo (“Eastern Boys”), and his co-writer, Philippe Mangeot, who drew on their own experiences as members of ACT UP Paris in the ’90s. They have made a sprawling, passionate tribute to the power of organized protest, one that derives its authenticity from not only moments of fierce, confrontational action, but also extended elaborations of policy and procedure.
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If that sounds dry or uninvolving, it isn’t. Plunging us into a not-so-distant moment when AIDS was decimating the LGBT community, among others, this is clear-eyed, present-tense historical filmmaking that refuses the consolations of hindsight or nostalgia. The dialogue crackles with anger; even the simplest exchanges seem brusque, testy, drained of the usual pleasantries. Nary a moment passes when we aren’t reminded of how high the stakes are and how vigilant those on the front lines have become.