REVIEW | “Battements Par Minute” debuts at Cannes Film Festival

FILM | An exploration of the AIDS crisis in 1990s Paris - enough to win the top prize?


When "The Normal Heart" was translated from stage to film in 2014, it sought to depict what it was like to be diagnosed and living with AIDS in New York in the 1980s, and further looked to normalize the discussion.

"Battements Par Minute" attempts to complete a similar task with the 1990s AIDS scene in Paris. Directed by Robin Campillo, the French film (originally entitled "120 Battements Par Minute" or "120 Beats Per Minute" — the average heart rate of a human) explores the AIDS activist community ACT UP at their Paris chapter, chronicling their work over the course of a year as the group of activists attempts to get answers from pharmaceutical companies, change the message of the government, and raise awareness about the illness that has complicated their lives and brought them together.

Among the group of activists is Nathan (Arnaud Valous), a newcomer who is "negative" but passionate about the cause, and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a radical member of the group who has been diagnosed "positive" and is slowly worsening in his symptoms. Majority of the film focuses on the romantic relationship that develops between the two men and how it is strained by the AIDS diagnosis.


In this group atmosphere, "BPM" works to do what few activist stories manage: show us the disagreements between people all supposedly working for the same cause. We see the leaders of the group fighting for calmer approaches to making their points and militant members standing up and arguing back that only flashy moves will make their voices heard. In today's political climate where many young people find themselves getting involved in similar causes, it can be helpful to see what previous work has been done. It was also impactful for the group to be cast so diversely and included not only gay men (the most commonly thought of group in the AIDS crisis), but also lesbians, people of color, and parents of diagnosed children.

However, it is the film's ability to convey and raise emotions that is its strongest attribute. There are many scenes that will make audiences uncomfortable. These scenes are the most important and plethoric. Everything from the group throwing fake blood at drug companies who refuse to release statistics for a new medication to holding political funerals involving coffins in the streets and ashes scattered at events for members of ACT UP who pass away. While some audiences may question the impact of such because "BPM" is fictional (unlike "The Normal Heart"), Campillo going for a "half-docu" sort of feeling, it is worth remembering its base in truth.


The work the film does to normalize the cycle of AIDS is also remarkable. It works to show every element of being in a relationship where this is a factor. We see Nathan and Sean in a dimly lit, slow sex scene — the kind of thing audiences are accustomed to seeing with heterosexual couples but not with homosexual — that is incredibly loving and intimate, but it is proof that it remains taboo in society when it caused people to walk out of the theatre. We also receive scenes as Sean becomes further ill with close ups of his blistering skin, his IV process, and ultimately his dead body that Nathan wakes up to discover and friends come to mourn over. This is the reality for people with AIDS, and "BPM" does not shy away from that. The film screams for the need for tolerance, and should make you question if you're unwilling to give it such.

Despite the emotional impact of the plot, Director Campillo does nothing interesting in the actual depiction of each scene. His camera shots are traditional and familiar. At times, they can even work to diminish the value of the plot because they take us out of the time period of the piece — one of the major elements of the story.


Audiences may think the film is set in modern day while watching because of the coloring and clarity of the scenes, as well as the fact that there are no reminders after the beginning. Characters are dressed relatively modernly. Nothing about politics outside of AIDS-related topics is discussed. And one of the final scenes involves a large scale depiction of the Seine River being dyed red, but because of the ethereal quality of its depiction, it seems false and entirely unbelievable (perhaps because it did not happen in history). While the content of "BPM" is certainly reaching to try and break boundaries, none of the actual cinematic work comes close to doing such.

There is no doubt that there is great importance in the dark history of AIDS and that it is worth reiterating to people in a world that is arguably still quite fearful and dismissive of the issue. However, should "BPM" take home the Palme d'Or, it will be solely because of its political stance and not because of its great leaps and bounds in cinematography, for there are none. It will also throw into question if the festival is becoming a place more targeted toward social activism rather than one looking to appreciate unique artistry.

A complete list of films in competition for the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the Palme d'Or, is available on the festival's website, as is a press conference with the team behind "120 Battements Par Minute."

Rachel A.G. Gilman is a writer, a radio producer, and probably the girl wearing the Kinks shirt. Follow her on Twitter.


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