BPM (Beats per Minute)

Campillo, Robin

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Annotated by:
Zander, Devon
  • Date of entry: Feb-20-2020
  • Last revised: Feb-20-2020


BPM is a fictional, French film about ACT UP Paris in the 1990s.  Directed by Robin Campillo, himself a veteran of Paris’s ACT UP, the film details the realities of being an HIV/AIDS political action group during an era of governmental inaction and lack of recognition of those most impacted by HIV and AIDS.  Initially, BPM focuses on the collection of individuals who make up ACT UP Paris and how they organize themselves to protest and advocate for greater media attention, better sexual education, and more access to new pharmaceutical data, among a myriad of other causes.  The film eventually shifts its focus from ACT UP as a group to two of its members, a couple, one of whom, Sean, is struggling with AIDS and Nathan, his partner, who supports him together with the the rest of ACT UP. 

In addition to its presentation of HIV activism, BPM documents what it meant to be HIV positive in a world without highly active antiretroviral therapy and where those most affected were largely ignored or even viewed with disdain.  Historical references ground the film firmly in the 1990s, including allusions to France’s infected blood scandal when hemophiliacs were knowingly given infected blood products, discussions that led to the initial development of protease inhibitors, and ACT UP Paris’s 1993 protest on World AIDS Day when a large pink condom covered the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde.  Contrasting with these larger historical references are daily moments of living with HIV in this era. Members of ACT UP are shown taking AZT and DDI around the clock (including ensuring to pack water during a protest, in case of arrest, when they may need to take medication in jail), regularly attending the funerals of friends who died of AIDS, and enduring moments of homophobia from those outside of ACT UP.


One cannot watch BPM without thinking of its American counterparts - namely, the play, and now movie, The Normal Heart and the documentary How to Survive a Plague. In comparing The Normal Heart which dramatizes the internal politics and debate in Gay Men’s Health Crisis about how to be an advocacy organization, and How to Survive a Plague which details ACT UP’s struggles and achievements in gaining recognition and better treatment options, BPM combines both of these central tensions into a film that is just as much about an organization’s interpersonal dynamics as it is about the work the organization is doing and the stigma and stasis it confronts in the outside world. 

Though BPM starts and ends with dramatic protest scenes - fake blood being thrown, ashes being tossed on food at an insurer’s event - its core backdrop is a nondescript lecture hall where ACT UP attendees debate, plan, and vote on advocacy actions.  It is here where heated discussions play out about whether jail time constitutes justice, what the boundaries of nonviolent protest are, how visible the organization should be, whether those suffering from AIDS should be used as scare tactics or poster children, and what populations deserve the most advocacy.  In juxtaposing the mundanities of political organizing with the more feverish protest scenes, BPM shows how a collection of small moments like setting rules of debate, holding discussions, presenting new journal articles, hosting Q&As, and attending committee meetings gave stage to force political change to happen.

In one of the final scenes of the movie, a member of ACT UP memorializes Sean by saying that “he lived politics in the first person.”  BPM embodies this idea.  It reminds us how in the wake of the AIDS crisis the personal was inherently political and how advocacy groups, largely comprised of those impacted by HIV, took on an outsized role to demand recognition and change to help save those who were infected and prevent further infections from occurring.



Running Time (in minutes)