France’s Oscar contender for best foreign language film, BPM, fucked me up for days after I saw it. But I’m glad I did—it’s a movie about AIDS activism that avoids many of the tropes that usually appear in depictions of HIV and AIDS. In other words, it’s the kind of movie that wouldn’t get made in the United States.
Set in 1990s Paris and focused on a French activist group modeled on ACT UP (Acte! Oope!), BPM is beautifully shot, with impressionistic and associative editing. Surreal scenes of demonstrations that incorporate fake blood and scattered pills dissolve into dialogue-less, strobing club scenes—which then bleed into shapes that slide into focus as infected immune cells, only to become flowers in the next shot. It’s mesmerizing and abstract, and it adds stylistic cohesion to a film that’s otherwise unstructured.
In the world of BPM, there are no good victims or virtuous doctors, no recuperation arcs or desexualized queer characters. Instead, we see complex scenes of intimacy, whether between an HIV-positive man broaching his status with an HIV-negative partner, or the whole messy group of activists arguing over whether to employ an incremental, diplomatic approach, or to just throw fake blood on political leaders who don’t take AIDS seriously. There are complex discussions, and few clear answers.
This same nuance also applies to BPM’s depiction of death: For every policy change the characters push for, they have another friend to bury. It’s not a spoiler to say that young people die of AIDS in BPM, and when they do, they aren’t romanticized or made into martyrs. Instead, their deaths are treated as the senseless, unjust fates they are. A lesser film might reach for resolution, but BPM knows there’s no logic to suffering. It doesn’t happen for a reason. But agitating for change can limit its reach.