Drenched in callously optimistic naivete, some insisted after Trump was elected that if “we lived through Reagan, we’ll live through this.” Those with a sharper memory of Reagan’s genocidal policies on everything from AIDS to crack-cocaine helpfully noted that many didn’t live through Reagan. Robin Campillo’s “BPM,” about a French chapter of the New York-based ACT UP, or AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, is about those activists who took to the streets so others could live. How did they “survive a plague?” By organizing, dancing, and practicing extremely hot and extremely safe sex.
For writer-director Campillo, a self-described “ACT UP militant in the ‘90s,” and co-writer/fellow activist veteran Phillipe Mangeot, the bedroom, the dancefloor, and the protest are all part of the same political conversation. The film plays like worker’s strike doc “Harlan County USA” and cruising farce “Taxi Zum Klo” both coming together to occupy the gentrified spaces of “Eden”’s history of hetero French House fandom. And the film devotes a nearly unprecedented amount of screen time to the ins-and-outs of logistics for direct action and the discourse surrounding it, nearly simulating a Frederick Wiseman documentary’s worth of meetings. Closer to the tete-a-tetes of “Battle of Algiers” or “Pom Poko,” “BPM” spends time with multiple campaigns and strategies, from disrupting power in private spaces or public forums, to communal care like doing house calls for bedridden members.
Early on, the crew storms a pharmaceutical company’s offices wielding balloons filled with fake blood, demanding they release info from trial tests on newer, better AIDS medications than those on the market. They also storm schools with condoms and pamphlets on STDs and safe sex practices, get involved in council debates, and make time to leave notes saying “warning: this book contains homophobic ideas that stigmatize AIDS Victims or HIV-Positive people” in a particularly homophobic new Baudrillard book, warning others to be skeptical of supposed left allies.
Campillo turns the chapter into an organic character with moving parts as opposed to filtering it through one member of the community a la “Norma Rae” or “Harvey Milk.” When Campillo does allow space for a love story—between a more veteran activist with HIV and a newer one without—it plays as a variant on group dynamics as opposed to a distraction from it, allowing nothing to happen in a vacuum. Arnaud Rebotini’s score does the same. Organized like one long house set, Rebotini will nimbly separate a lilting piano, or a throbbing bass for a more intimate moment before reforming like an individual coming back to the larger movement.
While the current political landscape, a less sanitized variant on our traditional white christian theocracy this country has always run on, looks particularly apocalyptic at the moment, “BPM” illustrates with an unprecedented amount of detail how the best way to work through despair is by organizing—but not without dancing or fucking.
“BPM,” directed by Robin Campillo, is currently available on Amazon, iTunes, and other streaming sites. It arrives on Blu-Ray on March 6.