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BPM (Beats Per Minute)
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by Jay Seaver

"Finds an excellent rhythm even when it changes speeds."
5 stars

"120 Beats Per Minute" (to translate its French name literally) is a fairly long movie, and it's in large part because it keeps going after the rallying-cry scene that would often serve as the fist-pumping finale for a film about activism and activists. It's a shift in focus that reminds the audience that this fight is not something abstract, but a matter of life and death, a fight that in many cases would pay off for the next wave of people infected with HIV (or, given that much of the work is focused on prevention, not infected). It's a shift from what's come before, but a good one - the bulk of "Beats Per Minute" is a terrific movie, but one cannily aware that what makes a good movie doesn't necessarily tell the whole story.

It takes place in the early 1990s, focused on ACT UP Paris, an AIDS advocacy organization noted for its guerrilla protest style that routinely results in arrests but is generally able to avoid actual injuries or serious damage. As it opens, four new members are joining the weekly meetings, including student Jérémie (Ariel Borenstein) and HIV-negative Nathan (Arnaud Valois), as the members of longer standing break down a recent activity where organizer Sophie (Adèle Haenel) thought that firebrand Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) crossed a line. It's a well-organized but tumultuous meeting of a group that shares those same characteristics.

Writer/director Robin Campillo spends much of the early going focusing on the group and how it goes about its business, obeying a lot of the same rules as a fly-on-the-wall documentary in that he doesn't necessarily worry about making sure every potential situation is either foreshadowed or explained as it comes up in order to give the audience an easy point of entry - the "orientation" is more about how the weekly meeting works than about the unfortunate state of AIDS education and the epidemic itself in France at the time. It's a choice that is quietly engrossing, allowing an audience that may be inclined to view this sort of protester as an undisciplined agitator to see the level of commitment and consideration that goes into their every action and perhaps gives the next generation some appreciation of what was involved in this sort of organization before everybody had an immediate wireless connection to everybody else.

It's a perspective that often has him tackling subjects a bit obliquely, as it becomes clear that there are many different perspectives and priorities within this group, and that they are shifting for the individual members. One particular thread that never quite moves to the front but is also not quite given short shrift is how several members of leadership including veterans like Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) are becoming more focused on the science of the search for a cure to the point where they are more willing to engage with pharma companies than to treat them in a strictly adversarial manner even as people like Sean with rapidly deteriorating T-cell counts cannot help but approach the issue in terms of immediate urgency. It's a quiet but frank look at how causes and the people dedicated to them must evolve - that one cannot entirely leave the flashy awareness campaigns behind, but that the focus must also switch to practical actions.

That moves to the background a bit as the Campillo puts more focus on the pairing of Sean and Nathan, which emerges naturally from the more procedural material - a casual mention that it's too bad Nathan is "neg", more personal moments that start with scenes of them with other lovers - until the filmmakers have started to focus on them even during the ACT UP meetings, with tight focus that removes the rest of the crowded room from the widescreen frame and the conversation around them muffled until the snapping fingers that take the place of clapping in this setting appears on the soundtrack and pulls them and the audience back into the larger group. It's a shift in emphasis that isn't always this smooth - the jump to Sean's hospitalization is jarring when the film has mostly showed that many of the characters are sick sudden, alarming interjections to scenes that are about something else - but there's truth to that, as the reason for the characters' protests inevitably pulls them away from it, and a relationship that quietly accommodated the disease must now be far more defined by it.

Such a shift in emphasis also shows that the filmmakers have put together a rather impressive cast more clearly - for much of the film, the large ensemble and focus on process can make it easy to forget that there are performances going on. And even as the film becomes more about the characters, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart is still so thoroughly natural as Sean that how great he is doesn't necessarily register until the end - he spends so much of the film perfectly and unrepentantly abrasive that his vulnerability takes a bit of time to register and win the audience over as they can see the same roots when he is begrudgingly accepting help later. That's when one also starts to see that there's clearly more to Nathan than the handsome, composed guy who sometimes seems like the guy other movies would make the hero so that a straight audience would be comfortable - little bits of self-doubt and panic start to show up later on so that when the last act has him both brave and overwhelmed, it's not out of nowhere. That last act also has Saadia Bentaïeb making a huge contribution in just a relatively few scenes as Sean's mother, and as the rest of the cast trickles back in, it's remarkable just how well the audience will feel they know their characters despite their earlier scenes not necessarily feeling a whole lot more than functional.

That's the sort of thing that often makes a movie like "Beats Per Minute" sneakily terrific - by avoiding obvious melodrama and hand-wringing, the filmmakers give the cast a chance to show who their characters are by what they do and how they do it. There are funny and emotional moments throughout the film, and stylish bits that wind up being very clever indeed (the glittering dust and confetti in the occasional bits of the young activists dancing in a club sneakily echo other images of cells, viruses, and molecules in a bloodstream), but mostly there's the kind of clear look at people doing what they can that commands the viewer's attention and interest without needing much obvious embellishment.

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originally posted: 02/04/18 07:31:14
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 New York Film Festival For more in the 2017 New York Film Festival series, click here.

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  06-Apr-2018 (15)


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