All of the most riveting human drama in Robin Campillo’s Beats Per Minute takes place in a cramped lecture hall somewhere in Paris, at the site of a weekly meeting of the city’s chapter of the HIV-AIDS advocacy group ACT UP. This is an epic period film about that small room, filled with dozens of activists who helped shape a global conversation, and their story is heartbreakingly relevant to the ways people think about protest to this day. Beats Per Minute is 140 minutes long, and the majority of that running time is devoted to those crowded discussions—but every second is full of life.
Campillo and his co-writer Philippe Mangeot were both involved with ACT UP Paris in the early 1990s, when the film is set, and they drew on their experiences in scripting the movie. That authenticity shines through constantly—this is a film that operates on a granular level and finds real tension in debates over the meaning and manner of dissent. As an ode to the gay community, Beats Per Minute is necessarily insular and sometimes claustrophobic, a reminder of a time not long ago when the AIDS crisis was both roundly ignored and deeply stigmatized.
ACT UP, started in New York by gay activists including Larry Kramer in 1987, was a group devoted to direct action and raising global awareness about the AIDS pandemic, rejecting what they saw as political timidity by existing LGBT-rights groups. As Beats Per Minute depicts, its Paris chapter was similarly confrontational, rushing the stage at medical conferences and barging into pharmaceutical headquarters to challenge what they saw as a heartless, capitalistic approach to conquering the crisis. As the film begins, a demonstration ends with a pharmaceutical rep getting handcuffed to a stage and pelted with fake blood. The question before the group, which later reconvenes in their lecture hall, is: How radical is too radical?
It’s a question Beats Per Minute doesn’t try to definitively answer—Campillo is much more interested in the push and pull of each discussion, and in making sure there are no straw men to root against. Even as the ensemble of Beats Per Minute tosses ideas back and forth, there’s an urgency to the movie that manifests in their performances, and in the history being told. Paris’s gay community in 1992 is facing a critical situation where people are dying, and others are still willfully ignorant of the disease.
The first meeting in the film starts with the ACT UP member Eva (Aloïse Sauvage) giving a straightforward eulogy for a founding member of the chapter who recently died of AIDS-related complications. Her tone is not without emotion, nor is it resigned, but you get the impression it’s the sort of speech she’s had to give many times before. That hint of realism turns even mundane, clerical exchanges into something riveting. Rather than simply using these organizing meetings to deliver blank expositional dialogue, Campillo lets them run on and on, forcing viewers to engage with the nitty-gritty of the issue rather than concentrate on its lurid aspects.
Not that the director shies away from more sensational moments. The scenes of direct action are surprising, enervating, and occasionally shocking as the group finds what lines they’re willing to push up against and others they’re prepared to fully cross. Campillo also shows his heroes dancing at clubs, marching in pride parades, and falling in love with each other. But whether he’s focusing on the political or the personal, he never zooms out, giving an impression of just how isolated the gay-rights activist community might have felt in the early ’90s.
In one scene, four ACT UP members ride the Metro, having just exited police custody, exulting in what they’ve accomplished. On the edge of the frame, we see an older man stand up and move away from them, looking unnerved. But Campillo’s camera doesn’t follow him, instead sticking with the characters at the center of his story. He’s conveying, at once, the strength the group draws from their solidarity and also their alienation from a more “mainstream,” prejudiced France. They might share the same subway car, but the distance between their lives is vast.
Beats Per Minute is a true ensemble film, but it’s told through the eyes of Nathan (Arnaud Valois), an HIV-negative man who is new to the group; he eventually falls in love with Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), one of the more militant members of ACT UP. Their relationship, and Sean’s experience with AIDS, dominates the second half of the movie, as Campillo shifts from a broader storytelling perspective to an intimate one. Despite some powerful material, the film does wander a little in its final hour, as the realization sinks in that even if things will eventually change, it will happen too incrementally to save every life.
Campillo’s film is timely even as it chronicles a public-health crisis that younger audience members might not be familiar with. Beats Per Minute is specific in topic, to be sure—this is a moving account about the gay experience at a particular point and place in history—but it’s also fascinating to consider from a wider angle, as many people continue to grapple with how to carry out different kinds of political protests. Beats Per Minutes lives in the details of those serious and dynamic conversations, making it all the more resonant in 2017.