SHQFF’s very own programmer, Miss Jing Yu, a valiant cinema freak and fearless film industry professional, reports directly from BPM(Beats Per Minute)’s premiere at the 70th Cannes International Film Festival. This festival favorite, a brilliant queer cinema masterpiece, inspired her to share her experience of it with us. So here it is, a fresh-out-of-the-oven review, just for you.
The director of BPM, Robin Campillo, was last at Cannes in 2008, when he wrote the screenplay for The Class(Entre les murs), which won the Palme d’Or. The excitement his new film has stirred at Cannes has cemented his reputation for understanding and capturing characters and their relationships on screen as second to none. It certainly gives Laurent Cantet, the director of The Class, a run for his money.
The story is straightforward: in the early 1990s in France, an AIDS advocacy group rises up and fights the pharmaceutical companies whose monopoly has limited access to life saving medication.
The film doesn’t shy away from portraying the fraught and conflicted politics within this group of radicals. Campillo uses his camera as a cool, sensitive and observant eye, under which the idiosyncrasies and political aggressiveness of his characters come vividly to life before we’ve even learned their names.
Telling the story through an ensemble cast, Campillo explores the group from within as his first task. They have diverse identities and personalities: HIV-positive gay men, the mother of a teenager, fresh-faced college students who have just come out, a deaf-mute who communicates through an interpreter and some idealistic feminists come together under one premise. They have weekly meetings in a classroom, but other than that, their lives don’t intersect. Interestingly, their daily lives are never revealed. What brings them together is their daring and resolute queerness.
Campillo excels in this markedly progressive of identity. The treatment of queer characters as label-less individuals comes from a long line of French cinema endeavors—gender, age, occupation and even names are often seen as shells that the characters inhabit, and their importance pales in comparison to how these characters act when faced with conflict and struggle. These are the real moments where their true humanity shines through.
A love story within the film serves as a beautiful catalyst. With deteriorating health, the main character Scen’s only goal is to achieve some form of visible change from the movement. He sees the group as a vessel, and tries to isolate his personal feelings from his political ones. He wants only to engage with ideas, not with people, including the man he is falling for. However, love eventually takes hold, and he has to make a choice.
Differing from the intense portrayal of the radical movement in the beginning of the film, delicate and genuine emotional development of the characters takes a front seat in the latter part of the film. Some audience response suggests that the vigor in the first half of the film garnered more appreciation than the seemingly tame second half. However, in my opinion, the contrasting storylines and character journeys complete the life of their political movement. Its significance is only fully realized after we see what the main character has to go through. It’s the wholesome spectrum of Scen’s passion, betrayal, angst, hopelessness and solitude that give both his belief in driving the movement, and his urge to abandon it, meaning.
One of the most successful points the film makes through its depiction of groups like this one as the core of many LGBT movements is: the rights and freedoms we are asking for are simply the dignity to enjoy love and sex with who we want. Nothing more, and nothing less.
The film ends with the group coming together to sprinkle the ashes of a departed comrade, at his request, onto food and onto people, like sugar or glitter. Lights blur in a frenzy of movement, of dance and of kisses.