By Tom Ue.
Robin Campillo’s latest film BPM (Beats Per Minute) (2017) is set in Paris, in the early 1990s, and it focuses on members of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a group of activists who battle for those suffering from HIV/AIDS and who holds accountable different government agencies and major pharmaceutical companies. The film delves into the stories and explores the different positions taken by newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois); the fiery Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who becomes his boyfriend; and the group’s more moderate leaders, Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) and Sophie (Adèle Haenel). BPM has earned the FIPRESCI Prize, François Chalais Award, Grand Prize of the Jury, and Queer Palm at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and it has now been selected as the French entry for the Best Foreign Language Film competition at the Academy Awards. In what follows, Campillo and I discuss his film, how it relates to contemporaneous projects, and how he understands Nathan, Sean, and Thibault.
BPM follows a number of excellent films and TV series about AIDS, including Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves (2012) and Dallas Buyers Club (2013). How do you see your project as being different?
I didn’t see all the films about AIDS, to be honest. From the beginning of the epidemic in France, I was 20 in 1982, and a younger guy; I was really afraid of this. And I always thought what kind of film am I going to do with that. How can the epidemic be an object of cinema? I saw a lot of films that were maybe not that good. I have a lot of respect for all the films that I saw. I really tried to talk about this collective action in France because, after ten years of the epidemic, I thought that we were all alone in front of this epidemic: everyone on his own. And for me that’s what’s very important: I realized seven years ago that I wanted to talk not about the loneliness in front of the epidemic, I wanted to talk about this moment where we try to reinvent ourselves and try to become actors of this epidemic. And I wanted to talk about this contradiction in the group.
I wanted to talk about the problem of the representation of the disease that was going on in ACT UP; that was, for me, the opposition between Sean and the president of the association Thibault. When you take the first scene, for instance, people are debating about this action they just did. Some of them considered this action too violent – the action where they put blood on the face of the guy from the government. There are all talking about that and you can see immediately the actions in the amphitheatre, the debate. At the end of this debate, Sean is talking and, because of his rhetorical intelligence, he convinced everyone that the action was a big success. And yes, he has some kind of distance from his own disease. But at the last debate he went to, the images on his mind are the images of the disease: he’s going to the hospital, he’s having lots of problems, he’s going to see doctors and having treatment. The disease is becoming too strong, too much. He has no distance any more with the disease, and so that’s why when Thibault is talking about the fact that ACT UP should put people in front of the demonstration, for Sean it’s too much and he can’t be in this kind of representation. The disease is too much himself at the moment so that’s not possible any more.
And that’s what I want to talk about: the question of the possibility in life, in general, to have the distance with what we are going. The second was the opposition, which was very important to me, and it’s related to HIV but it’s really related to a lot of things in life in general. I wanted to talk about the opposition between Nathan and Sean because I think that Nathan is someone who has protected himself so much from the disease, from the fear that he didn’t live his life properly. He didn’t go to see his boyfriend, who died from AIDS. Sean is someone who is burning himself in action and losing his last chance in action. I also want to talk about this opposition.
I’m not sure that that’s different from the other films, but that’s what I wanted to talk about a lot.
Nathan does oscillate between Sean, the vocal member who becomes increasingly critical of ACT UP, and Thibault, its more moderate leader. Why do you think Nathan is drawn to these poles?
I think Nathan would be closer, politically, to Thibault. I think that he’s like Thibault. He’s HIV-negative so he shares the distance that Thibault has. I think he isn’t in love with Thibault. He likes him sexually. He’s like a very good friend. But I think Nathan’s in love with Sean because he’s in love with the group in a way. Sean is kind of the heart of the group. Nathan, at the same time, is a little bit more attracted to Sean because Sean is so different from him. Nathan was not there for his first boyfriend when he died, and so I think he’s trying to catch up with his own life, because he was protecting himself so much from the disease and the epidemic that he didn’t live his own youth. That’s why he is so involved with Sean.
It’s a strange thing, between Sean and Nathan: I’m not sure that Sean is so much in love with Nathan. I think he needs him in some way and he needs him when he gets out of this group because he cannot be part of this group. Because the fact that the disease is so much a part of himself that he cannot have this distance. When, at the end, Nathan and Thibault have this sex scene together, a few people tell me that Nathan’s cheating on Sean, which is not the case. I think it’s friendly sex that they have at the end.
You have compared the film to an opera: can you elaborate on this?
The opera form is something that is in my mind unconsciously. I realize that I created very specific moments between two persons or three persons. I realize that the most important thing in the beginning of the film the debate is like the choir: you have all these persons and you can’t decide which is the protagonist of the film. I wanted to have a very large, nineteenth-century opera with all those characters and this chorus. I like to go from this kind of thing to the duet, where you have two people talking together. For instance, at the hospital, you have a duet when Thibault is visiting Sean; and after, when Thibault has left, it’s Nathan who is all alone with Sean. I love the fact that you change the size, the dimension, the scale of the scene. You have a very large scene with a lot of people, like a choir, and you have a small scene with two or three people. I love this idea because, in the nineteenth-century opera, you have a lot of ballet. That’s why I wanted these clubbing scenes. Originally, in the script, there was dialogue in these scenes. I decided that there will only be dancing moments with no dialogue. I wanted to differentiate between these scenes and the scenes in the film. I try to have very specific forms in every scene which are different from each other.
I think you can get the sense of the opera from the film’s opening, which unfolds over ten minutes, and where the group members reconstruct what happened at the event where they put blood on the AFLS chairman and handcuffed him to a post.
I realize something when I was at Cannes and looking at the film. I had just finished editing two weeks before so it was a little bit hard. I realized that the first scene, that you were talking about, and the one at the school were like small theatricals, like stages. It’s like the actors get into these places and they change the dialogue. I like the idea that it’s a bit theatrical and of course the amphitheatre is theatrical. I love the fact that, when they go to the insurance reception at the end, they put Sean’s ashes everywhere: I wanted to have a very large painting. It’s because I want to show the spectator that we were in a theatre, that it’s like, operatic. The fact that the tablecloths are red is like red curtains closing the film. I love the idea of going this way at the end of the film, of balancing the film where it’s about the fact that institutions are theatre stages as well.
Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.