Over an hour into Robin Campillo’s new film BPM (Beats Per Minute), the sex that Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and Nathan (Arnaud Valois) have is political. Sean, lithe and slippery, sits atop Nathan, his musculature carved, flexed, and strained. There is pleasure surging through their veins, where the world outside may suggest it should not be. It is because of its sensuality and eroticism that its politics stand out. That one of the partners, Sean, is HIV positive, does not rob the scene of its aphrodisiacal nature, nor does it imbue the scene with an overwrought sense of tragedy. Instead, these bodies in motion and in the throes of lust and intimacy can just be. Campillo seems to assert in the film, “being” as queer is inherently political, or at least necessitates engagement with politics. If “being” queer is political, what does a film like BPM mean in a contemporary queer landscape, one that’s not limited to cinema?
BPM swings effortlessly between Sean and Nathan’s relationship and their involvement in the Paris chapter of ACT UP, its early 1990s iteration focusing on radical organizing and protest to call attention to the neglect that the government had been paying to the thousands dying of AIDS related complications. Campillo divides his time between watching, like a fly on the wall, the difficulties of radical organization, the complications in radical action, and the complexities of radical queer living. From the verbose arguments in the classroom sized space—about what the next step to making change regarding the health of HIV/AIDS patients is—to the bond between Nathan and Sean and their evolving relationship, it becomes impossible to compartmentalize those components of the characters’ lives. It becomes increasingly apparent that the two inform one another, that politics is sex and that sex is politics.
And while Campillo’s formal and tonal approach allows his film to have a potency and urgency that isn’t limited temporally by its period setting, there’s the lingering question of what a film about AIDS means in the age of PrEP. PrEP, or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, is an anti-HIV medication that keeps HIV negative people from contracting HIV. It’s a little blue pill that’s been nearly as revolutionary as other little pills. In addition to PrEP’s usage becoming more and more normalized in western industrialized countries, treatment of HIV and AIDS has advanced considerably in the last couple of decades, essentially recontextualizing the role of HIV/AIDS in contemporary, youth-fueled discourse about health and sexual practices. The social and political implications of this change are complex, and many of the debates include class/income status, access, AIDS decriminalization, and the way in which bodies with HIV/AIDs are frequently radicalized and/or stigmatized.
The role HIV/AIDS has played in queer cinema has often been framed around melodramatic tragedy. We’re ostensibly past the age of Philadelphia and Longtime Companion, Milk and Rent. However, contemporary films such as The Normal Heart (an adaptation of Larry Kramer’s play) and Dallas Buyers Club explicitly root both its narrative techniques and subject matter in the past. They act as if, as opposed to being a continual conversation, AIDS only existed within the AIDS Epidemic, “which is done now”. Intentionally or otherwise, it relegates HIV/AIDS as something no longer necessary to be dealt with.
The Normal Heart, directed by Ryan Murphy, takes on an odd grotesqueness, its polemical, shouty quality accentuated by Murphy’s strange directorial choices. The entry point into activist Ned Weeks’ life is through a manner that’s reminiscent of remixing classical melodrama techniques: stylized cinematography that makes its characters’ emotions palpable, heightened and exaggerated line deliveries, and characters that are (rightfully) volatile. But Murphy’s film, made for HBO, has an affected period-ness to it, as if this reality has been filtered in a strange way. There’s a strange sense of removal, and an artifice that also rears its head in Dallas Buyers Club, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, about Ron Woodruff’s experimental AIDS treatment drug smuggling endeavors. Vallée’s approach mixes an affected impression of realism and an affected artifice of melodrama, to end up squarely nowhere interesting. Its editing is too incoherent, and Rayon, a trans woman character that was written as a composite, seems like she’s only designed to die.
The Normal Heart is slightly more unique than Dallas Buyers Club in its somewhat paradoxical status; it was written as a contemporary piece, an art as activism during the age of the plague, but in its adaptation nearly three decades after its initial production in 1985, rightfully added into the canon of great queer art, it’s the film that’s the period piece, creating an odd sense of dissonance. Meanwhile, Dallas Buyers Club was written somewhat contemporarily, initially developed in 1993 after an article published about Woodruff had been reported in 1992. The script wasn’t completed until 1996, but was rewritten around 2001. Given the long development process of that film, its growing sense of removal from the period in which it was about and during which it was written only seems to anchor it even harder in the present, in the sense that it’s in the present about the past. It’s a history lesson.
Other contemporary films exist about the AIDS Plague, such as Test, Charles Mason Johnson’s 2013 narrative film about the impact the plague had on a dance company in 1985; and Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo, directed by Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, which follows two men who meet at a sex club as they walk around the streets of Paris into the late hours of the morning. The former film is pleasant, framed as a kind of artistic, naturalized horror film about regret and sexual practices, the existential dread of waiting to hear back on your results. And while it isn’t a middlebrow, period piece as the two aforementioned films, it was too narratively inert for most audiences. Théo & Hugo, in comparison, positions itself not unlike Andrew Haigh’s Weekend and Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy, with a queer twist. The lead characters first meet one another in a sex club, and the opening twenty minutes contain the most self-assured, unique sex scenes on screen, a scene in which sex is and is not the point, where the politics of queer intimacy are on display. That two people seem to fall immediately in love with one another while having sex in front of other people forces audiences to ask questions about where and how queer intimacy is found in a post-Grindr age. What spaces matter for that, and how those spaces have changed. Théo & Hugo, like BPM, allows its characters, regardless of HIV status to be sexual people, which is rarely afforded to them both on screen and, as least in much conversation, off screen. (Théo & Hugo also sort of functions like a PSA! Be aware of your sexual health!)
BPM is as in your face as ACT UP was at its height, loud and raucous and ready to thrust its audience into the complexities, nuances, and frustrations of the discussions that concerned them at the time, and arguably still concern queer people now, in different form. Conversation and debate is intense, rigorous, and vital in this film. The room in which these debates are had feels like a pressure cooker, Campillo’s camera work almost mimicking at times the archival footage of ACT UP meetings seen in documentaries like United in Anger and How to Survive a Plague. But Campillo can weave the specific relationship narrative seamlessly into these scenes with little more than a quick glance or a kiss. Urgency and energy pulsates in this film. It makes the room shake.
The trauma of the AIDS crisis has irrevocably shaped the lives of queer people and their art. BPM and Théo & Hugo, in their displays of various forms of queer intimacy and radicalism—on the streets, in the bedroom, in a hospital, and in protest—are messy, gloriously so. They reveal that messiness is intrinsic to political and personal change. Though BPM is technically a period piece, the kind of urgency that flows in its veins is nothing if not contemporary. BPM and Théo & Hugo posit themselves not as reminders of a history that young queer people are removed from, but as pieces in a conversation that is and should always be had. They crystalize the idea that queer bodies are political, always engaged in debate even if our voices aren’t heard. In spite of the paradigm shift ushered in by PrEP, HIV/AIDS is still part of our lives and our history.
The final scene of BPM finds the members of ACT UP in a banquet hall filled with affluent people dressed elegantly, those connected to the pharmaceutical companies that delay the ability to find effective treatment for HIV/AIDS patients. They’re throwing the ashes of an AIDS patient. Nathan is having sex somewhere, in grief. Club music starts bumping, strobe lights begin to pulsate, and the line between queer dance party, sexual bereavement, and political action disappears. The ashes hover in the air, almost like fairy dust. Every part of a queer person, every particle, is political.