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It was after temporarily walking away from the film industry that the director Robin Campillo discovered ACT UP Paris. It was the early 1990s, and the filmmaker had taken a job as a video editor for the French 3 channel. Shortly after getting hired, he was assigned to cut an interview with the aforementioned organization’s co-founder, Didier Lestrade. During the soon-to-be televised colloquy, Lestrade brought up the personal and professional battles undergone by those infected with AIDS, and how there had been little action to ease those struggles for more than a decade. “He talked about how their plight was being ignored by society and the state,” Campillo told Screen Daily last December. “It chimed with me, it was exactly what I felt.”
ACT UP, a direct action, AIDS advocacy group founded in New York in 1987, saw its Parisian branch come about in 1989 – and Campillo officially became a member not long after the Lestrade interview. He joined the organization in 1992, and his involvement with the group ultimately helped him define his activist voice and regain his passion for filmmaking. After spending much of his time with the group that decade, he eventually inserted himself into the French film industry by writing the 1998 television feature Les Sanguinaires, and continued working as a writer, editor, and producer in the years following. He made his directorial debut with 2004’s They Came Back, an acclaimed zombie flick, and has been making well-received movies since.
Although Campillo has made thematically similar films before, last year’s universally acclaimed Beats Per Minute makes for his first directorial effort in which he integrates many of his own experiences into the movie in store. It is also the first to address ACT UP. “I have always wanted to do a film that touched on the AIDS epidemic but it took me some time to find the heart of what I wanted to say,” the writer-director told Cinephiled last November. “I wrote some earlier scripts that I put away and more recently found myself thinking of this time in my life in the early ‘90s when I got involved with ACT UP.”
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The resulting film, which is a sprawling 143 minutes and semi-fictitiously orbits around the organization’s output in the ‘90s, is a feature plainly made from the heart. It is moderately simplistic and deliberately accessible in its portrayals of the politics of the situation at the time, but is intricate in its characterizations and is perfervidly performed. Though plenty of the feature is dedicated to all of ACT UP’s groundbreaking work, including its influence on Gay Pride and its courageous, confrontational forms of activism, Campillo is less concerned with its civics and more with the people who devoted so much of their lives to the coterie. And that works here.
In Beats Per Minute, our “in” is provided by Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a laconic, good-looking 20-something who joins the organization in one of the film’s first few scenes. (Campillo has said the character is partially based on himself.) For what we surmise to be a year or more, we experience ACT UP through Nathan’s eyes, which entails we sit through the debate-heavy, oft-zealous weekly meetings; the vehement protests; the frequent club outings; the sometimes volatile meet-ups with government officials and pharmaceutical heavyweights; the deaths of close friends.
We also get a feel for the interpersonal relationships and affinities between those involved with the organization. Most of the members are gay men and women, but the group isn’t discriminatory: it is open to anyone affected by AIDS, anyone fed up with the government and society’s lackadaisicality and ignorance.
We get to know Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), the level-headed but sometimes dominating group leader who often clashes with his cohorts; Sophie (Adèle Haenel), a facund member who regularly maps out the ins and outs of the protests; mom and son pair Héléne and Max (Catherine Vinatier and Felix Maritaud), who got involved with ACT UP after the latter got HIV via transfusion; and Jérémie (Ariel Borenstein), a dulcet kid battling the disease. We grow to love these people. Of utmost interest in the film, though, is Nathan’s eventual romance with the ardent, infectiously confident Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), which begins almost accidentally but proves to be more than just a passing fling as time wears on.
This film feels lived in. Perhaps this is because Nathan enters right as the organization is undergoing an outstandingly action-packed period, so there’s little time for us to do anything besides dive right into the goings-on of this group and figure out what to make of it, just like him. This could also be because so much of what we see is either autobiographical or at least an extension of real life. (Several behind-the-scenes personnel were involved with ACT UP some three decades ago, too.)
Fact is is that a sense of urgency vibrates – nothing here feels like watered-down recapitulation. It makes for what we suspect to be a blue-ribbon, candid snapshot of what it was like being in ACT UP Paris at that time: characterized by as much frustration and outrage and tragedy as it was tenderness, love, laughter. It’s a hyperreal cinematic translation drawn with sound and fury, bettered because of Campillo’s thorough and worn knowledge of the topic and because the performers are so precise and easy to empathize with. (The film is a pantheon of fresh talent – Valois and Biscayart are particularly excellent.)
Another thing Beats Per Minute gets especially right is the much-repeated aphorism that the political is personal – no one involved with ACT UP was some sort of shallow activist dilettante. Everyone was there because their lives more or less depended upon it, which is something that will never lose its power or pertinence. Campillo has made a transcendent, marvelously moving film. Here is one of the best movies of 2017, and one of the most affecting, emotionally resplendent films of the decade.