In Paris in the early 1990s, a passionate group of activists goes to battle for those stricken with HIV/AIDS, taking on sluggish government agencies and major pharmaceutical companies with bold, invasive actions. The organization is ACT UP — the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power — and its members embrace their task as a literal life-or-death mission. Director Robin Campillo (They Came Back, Eastern Boys), who joined ACT UP Paris himself as a young gay man, tells a riveting story in this film, BPM (Beats Per Minute), of how the ragtag organization helped bring about big changes.
In the Paris college classroom where the members of ACT UP PARIS meet to argue debate strategy and plan its protests, a newcomer named Nathan (Arnaud Valois) is attracted to one of the group’s most outspoken members, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). Eager to push the limits in disruptive public confrontations, Sean grows testy and impatient with the more moderate approaches advocated by the group’s leaders, Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) and Sophie (Adèle Haenel). There is an urgency driving his radicalism — his health is more fragile than many of the other gay and straight activists. As the group scrambles from boisterous street demonstrations and boardroom face-offs to dance floors pulsing with light and rhythm, Nathan and Sean’s relationship deepens. As Sean gets sicker, their passion sparks against the shadow of mortality, and the community of activists plots its most dramatic protest yet. I sat down with Robin Campillo and actors Arnaud Valois and Nahuel Pérez Biscayart to discuss this moving film.
Danny Miller: I knew nothing about ACT UP Paris but I did know one of the founders of ACT UP Chicago, Dan Sotomayor, who died in 1992 when this film takes place. I’m sorry I didn’t get involved with the group at the time since I now really see the value of that kind of confrontational political action. Robin, having been a member of the organization, was this something you’ve long wanted to make a film about?
Robin Campillo: Yes. 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. 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. It was so not my personality to become militant in any way, but I was so angry and upset at the inaction at the time. I’ve always felt that the most popular political position is indifference. That remains a major problem in our society and it’s something that’s very difficult to fight against.
Do you think it’s because so many HIV-positive people were dying all around you that many people who never saw themselves as radical in any way became these courageous activists?
Yes, absolutely. Mobilization is always very hard to do, but you’re right, it’s because so many people were dying — we felt we had no choice. It’s very rare to have this political window where you can actually start to change things. ACT UP started here in the United States and we were very inspired by the American model. I was an editor for a TV news show and was editing a lot of stories about ACT UP. I heard the president of ACT UP Paris in one of these reports and was very impressed. And then, to be honest, one night I had this sex date planned very close to the place were ACT UP was meeting then, but the guy stood me up. I was upset about that and decided to go to the ACT UP meeting instead — which completely changed my life!
Wow, that’s the best story about being stood up that I ever heard!
(Laughs.) Many people in France at that time (and everywhere) were very afraid and intolerant of gay people, especially because of AIDS. So we decided to use that as a weapon. We would burst into all these events at different organizations and it was very powerful. Amongst ourselves we’d laugh at the effects we had on people — if they were afraid of us, we were going to make them even more afraid in order to make groups take action to help all the people who were getting sick.
I know this film is fictional, but I’m assuming if any character was based on you, it must be Nathan?
Yes, to some extent. Like me, Nathan is a newcomer, he’s shy, and he never thought he would end up an activist. And when Nathan is taking about his past in the film, it’s basically me. I actually wrote that text about 10 years ago for an AIDS conference, and I was very happy to put those words into Nathan’s mouth.
Arnaud Valois: And that was the only scene in the entire film where Robin said, “You have to say it word for word, stick to the text!” The only one.
Robin Campillo: It’s true. Of course, Nathan is much calmer than I was at the time. I really like my characters to have lots of contradictions, I’m not into archetypes that don’t really exist in the real world. I don’t make films because I completely know the characters, I make them because I want to discover the characters along with the audience. The first draft of the character that I write is never going to be the final character, I leave a lot to my actors.
That’s great — and what a lot of responsibility it gives to you, Arnaud and Nahuel. You’re both amazing in the film. Did you also feel a big responsibility to learn as much as you could about those times and the AIDS crisis?
Arnaud Valois: We read a book called ACT UP by Didier Lestrade, the first president of ACT UP Paris, we watched a lot of archival footage of the protests and some documentaries, but you know, Robin told us he did not want us to become experts on the subject — he wanted us to be like our characters, young and a bit naïve, and just go with the flow.
Nahuel Pérez Biscayart: I also watched this amazing documentary called Silverlake Life: The View from Here, from 1993 that was made by two HIV-positive guys who were filming each other and then one of them dies first and then the other. It was such a strong film — real-life first-person stuff about how the sickness really goes. For me, that was the perfect film to watch to understand what my character was going through, I didn’t watch any fiction films of the subject. Then, of course, it was just a matter of trust. I think a good director is someone who sees in you something that you may not be seeing. When you have that kind of trust, the energy just starts flowing, I didn’t just feel like I was playing a character, I felt like something bigger was happening.
I wasn’t there, obviously, but as an audience member, I had the feeling that the same kind of bonding that was happening within the ACT UP Paris group in the film was actually happening with the actors on the set.
It exactly was! Even though we were so different, each person in the cast was just so completely different from one another.
Robin Campillo: And that was the case in ACT UP, too. I wanted to recreate that energy and diversity, and that space and electricity that can happen between people. There’s such possibility when that happens.
Nahuel Pérez Biscayart: Some movies about real events think that they have the answers, that each character has the solution. Nobody gets lost in those films. But that’s not what this film is about at all.
After being in this film, do you feel like you’re more of an activist than you were before?
Arnaud Valois: More aware, that’s for sure, and more concerned.
There are so many analogies you can make to today when you watch this film, even apart from the AIDS crisis. I feel like we’re all being called on to become confrontational activists. Maybe we need an ACT UP Trump movement.
Robin Campillo: Sometimes it takes traumatic events to change a person. I remember reading this science fiction book when I was a kid that was about these aliens coming to Earth and some of the people on Earth really worked hard to learn the aliens’ language but then they discover that the act of speaking their language makes them actually become the aliens. That’s kind of how I felt in my life when I found ACT UP — I became someone different, a foreigner, a stranger to myself. And there was no possibility of going back to how it was before.
You could almost say it’s the other way around — that you were alien before and then you found your real self.
Maybe. But one of the things I love about cinema is that I think it can do that, too. A film can change you and make you feel like a stranger to yourself.
Does ACT UP Paris have an honored position in France these days? Or is the group dismissed as a bunch of troublemakers?
It was certainly not respected at the time by many people. It’s funny, though — to hear the discussions among people at Cannes when we brought the film there, you’d think that everyone loved ACT UP and that everyone was somehow involved with the group. All French people were in ACT UP like all French people were in the Resistance during World War II. No one collaborated with the Germans, right? It’s nice to make these claims now in retrospect but it’s just not true. Most were not on our side back then — we were just a bunch of fags and dykes and way too dodgy to be accepted at the time.
I love that this film does not rely on any of the stereotypes that many American films that touch on the AIDS epidemic do.
Nahuel Pérez Biscayart: Yeah, it’s a very unusual film compared to typical American cinema. Who are the main characters? You can go through half the film and not know. Who are the heroes? Who’s dying? Who’s in love with who?
The length of the film alone (2 hours and 20 minutes) would make American producers go nuts. Robin, did you get any pressure to shorten the film?
Robin Campillo: Not by my producers, but the programmer of Cannes called me and said they really loved the film but it was just too long so could I possibly cut it?
How did you respond?
I said, “Yes, I’ll try my best” and then we told him we cut seven minutes but in truth we only cut one! (Laughs.) They never noticed.
I wouldn’t have minded if it were an hour longer. I would have liked a whole film on Sophie, or the mother, or Thibault — any of those characters.
I love to think that when you see characters that they have an entire world of their own that we’re not seeing — that we don’t know them enough. Characters exist more like that in novels but in cinema, for some reason, characters are often ridiculously narrowed. Why do we have to do that?
I’m sure you’re aware of the horrific attacks against the LGBTQ community here since Trump took office. I assume it’s a much better situation in France right now?
I mean, Macron is not openly attacking LGBT groups, but he doesn’t really care, it’s not a subject he ever discusses. He really doesn’t know very much at all.