Film & TV

A Deep Dive into BPM with Director Robin Campillo

by Maxwell Williams
The Cannes award-winning French language film follows fictional, but rooted in real life, experiences of members of HIV/AIDS activist group ACT UP in the '90s, of which Campillo was a part.

Last May, Robin Campillo’s film BPM (the French title is 120 battements par minute) won the second most important prize at Cannes, the Grand Prix, and subsequently made waves in French theaters. Drawn solely from Campillo and co-writer Philippe Mangeot’s memories of their time in HIV/AIDS activism group ACT UP in the 1980s is a capsule of a pivotal time in queer history.


Campillo’s third feature (after Les Revenants [2004] and Eastern Boys [2013]) begins at an ACT UP meeting, where we are introduced to the group’s war with pharmaceutical companies and politicians for, among other things, the test results for a new drug to treat HIV. There, we meet Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a young activist who is as sick as he is fed up with the political situation.


Spoilers: Enter Nathan (Arnaud Valois): a gentle, handsome, HIV-negative new member. They bond during ACT UP actions like splashing the offices of a pharmaceutical company with fake blood and taking over high school classes to hand out condoms against administrators wishes. They flirt with each other in between the arguments at contentious meetings, and have a brief romance before Sean falls gravely ill.


The film is magical in its depiction of the time. Club scenes, gauzily shot, act as buffers between intense scenes of action and violence. Sex — like a scene with talk of former lovers, or a handjob for a bedridden Nathan — is rendered with a quiet intimacy that it is so rarely given in gay films, unless, of course, it’s completely panned over like in 2017’s breakout queer film Call Me By Your Name. In BPM, activism isn’t as glamorized, often acting as an agent of change, but also a catalyst of failure and internal clashes.


Though the film won the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Foreign Language Film and is nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, it never really took off in theaters in the States. Nor did it get a deserved Oscar nomination, which is a shame. (Thankfully, it is now available to rent or buy outside of France.)

Here, he recounts those times in an extensive and honest interview, with insights into the spirit of ACT UP, the heartbreaking reality of the AIDS epidemic, and the filming of a deeply personal story.


BPM feels so real, like a biopic. I know that it’s drawn in part from you and your co-writer Philippe’s collective experiences. Was it a challenging movie to conceive of and write, because you were opening up old wounds?

RC: Oh yes. In fact, it was really hard to write the script. As I’ve said many times, I did this film out of my memories, not out of documents. So it was really emotional when I wrote the script. That was the worst part of the process. It took me a year and a half to do it. Sometimes I was crying. The good thing is after [writing the script], because you don’t do a film on your own. When you become a director, and you’re not alone, you have to stand up and become braver. When I opened the door, and all these actors and technicians came into the film, it was a relief, because it took the film off my shoulders.


You didn’t have to live inside it as much, and you could share it a little bit.

RC: Yes, very much. There was a lot of pressure on my shoulders, because I was afraid of the reactions of the former militants of the group. That was very important to me: that they recognized what we lived 25 years ago. I didn’t want to disappoint people.


That was one of my questions: was there a screening that you held for former members at ACT UP? And what were some of the reactions?

RC: Yes, in fact, when you do a film, you do a screening for the technicians and actors, and it was at the same time a screening for the former militants and companions of ACT UP. It was very impressive to have all of these people of the past and these people of now meet together and see the film. Because there were so many people, we opened three theaters to show the film. The militants that came to see my film were close to me [back then], so I think they were very moved. I received a lot of emails after that, because some people couldn’t talk to me after the screening. It was not so easy [to watch] for former militants, because some of them didn’t remember some parts that were in the film. I thought something that was interesting: you had all the survivors who were HIV-positive, who survived until now. But it was also moving for people who were HIV-negative, who went through the ‘80s and ‘90s very afraid, and very guilty that they escaped the disease.


You’ve said Sean was partly inspired by the ACT UP Paris president Cleews Vellay. He’s not someone that there’s a whole lot of information on in the U.S. What can you tell me about him? What does he mean in France?

RC: I must say, at first, people were asking me if [the characters] were inspired by real people, and I said, ‘No, they are not inspired by real people; they are fictional characters.’ Even if all the details in the film are real, the characters are really fictional. But sometimes you can recognize Cleews Vellay [in Sean], but it’s not him, because he didn’t die like Sean. He died in the hospital, and a lot of militants were around him, so it was really different. What I can say: Cleews was someone that didn’t want to be loveable. He didn’t want to please people. He was really gruff, and he didn’t want to give a good image of queer people. We didn’t care about that. We didn’t want to be accepted. We were here, and that was it. Because you had this guy Didier Lestrade, who created the group, and was the first president of ACT UP Paris, and he was softer than Cleews. [Didier] was inspired by the United States. He was very democratic; that was very important to him. And Cleews had a lot of wounds. In French, we say le coeur serré—his wounds were wide open. His body is a struggle, and because of that, he was not protecting himself enough. He was putting his body in danger like Sean is in the film. That’s the main point. The film is a contrast of Sean and Nathan. Sean is someone who is burning himself in life, and Nathan, in the ‘80s, has been overprotecting himself so much that he was not synchronized with his own youth. He goes to ACT UP to get synchronized with his life, and his relationship with Sean is very related to this. But what I can tell you about Cleews Vellay: I really think he was the heart of the association. He was very strong. And when he died, that was a big thing in ACT UP Paris. A lot of people got out of the group, because it became a little bit meaningless for them. He was the heart of the group.


You said in an interview with The Guardian that you didn’t make the film as any sort of didactic document, but that, ‘I worked with young, mostly gay actors who have a very different relationship to HIV and AIDS than I had 25 years ago. And I realized that I didn’t know that they didn’t know.’ Is that part of the reason to make this film—to give people at least a version of this history that happened?

RC: To be honest, I am tempted to say no. I really did the film as a very selfish thing. But unconsciously, I wanted to talk about all that. Let me put it like this: ACT UP Paris was very popular in France. We were the outcasts, but at the same time, people said that we were legitimate. I tried to think about a film to do about [ACT UP], because it was such an important event in the life of many people that I knew. I realized seven years ago that I should do a film about this moment of ACT UP where we decided not to be the poor gay victim anymore—we decided to be fags and dykes. We wanted to change the perception. The film starts in the backstage of an event, and so it was really about trying to explain in our own logic why we were doing what we were doing, and how we were planning actions. But I wanted also to give people—especially young gay guys—not only a historical genealogy, but an emotional and sensorial genealogy. It is important to know how we were emotionally during this time.


That’s my next question—this love story: I feel like there’s a reality of a melancholic time when someone could be your lover, but also a patient. How did you achieve matching the film to your own memories of that feeling?

RC: I think that Sean is protecting himself from what we call a ‘love story,’ but which is barely a story, because it stops very quickly after the beginning of the story. That happened a lot at the time. Arnaud Valois, who plays Nathan, in real life is also a masseur, so when he was caressing Sean, there was always some kind of medical care. In the script, Nathan was a little bit clumsy, and I realized that he is not like this at all. He is taking everything very calmly, so that changed the character. So, when we did the sex scene in the hospital, in the script it was a very erotic scene. Sean was also masturbating Nathan, and Nathan, at the end, was coming too, and I realized that wouldn’t be possible, because Sean is so weak at this moment of the film that he lets Nathan do it. You don’t know if the caresses of Nathan are real caresses, or if they are medical care. They didn’t have sex for many months, and it’s the first time after a long time, that there’s a kind of relief in the eyes of Sean, but at the same time, for the spectator, it’s obvious that it’s a short relief. It won’t last, because it’s close to the end [of Sean’s life]. Sean’s last line, he says to Nathan, ‘I’m sorry it happened to you’—to have to be there when he’s going to die. It was something that we felt very strongly at the moment; we were very young, and we realized that if you had a relationship of six months, you have to be there for the death. So it was really disturbing. You didn’t know if you were able to be brave or strong enough. That was really a lot for people.


Those sex scenes are incredible. One of the things that I think that BPM does that films about HIV/AIDS don’t often do is to explicitly address sexuality. I loved the way an Indiewire described BPM’s sensuality: “Condom talk can be sexy, a back-lit hand job in a hospital bed is an elegant act of devotion, and a grieving partner can solicit casual sex without his love being questioned.”

RC: First of all, it’s something that’s very obvious: you cannot talk about AIDS without talking about sexuality and sex. I like to shoot sex scenes, because I like this intimacy, and I like the fact that when you talk about intimacy, people think it’s talking and only caresses and rubbing, but it’s not true—we are talking when we have sex, and we don’t have sex all the time. All those things are very important to me, because [in ACT UP] we had political views, and we wanted to change the politics and social issues, but we were also talking to the gay community—and especially to gay men—and we thought we had a real responsibility [to talk about] about how we were having sex. We decided that even when we had sex in a park, we were obliged to talk about AIDS or HIV, even with a person who we knew for three hours, just for a quick sexual relationship—it was very important that we gave information to the others. And that could happen in a sexual or intimate moment with someone who didn’t know. We were trying to give some advice, because we knew that some people were afraid of the [HIV] test. So, for me, it was very natural to talk about this.


I also wanted to talk about these things we never talk about. For instance, when you do a sex scene, people are not already naked. You have to get naked in order to have a sex scene, and when you cum after, you have sperm, so you have to get rid of the sperm. All those details, for me, are very important. And you talk between sex moments. All these moments are very important to me, so it was really a pleasure to show that. And I wanted to show, also, when you have sex with someone, you have sex with someone who has had sex with other guys, so that’s why I wanted all these former lovers to appear into the scene as ghosts. It’s very intimate, but it’s also a connective thing, because, of course, intimacy and society are always related. We don’t have to oppose connectivity and intimacy. They are a part of the same system, for me, in a society.


I feel like the film is as much a document of activism as it is about sickness. It’s so real—if you are an activist, you will immediately recognize the infighting, the difficult discussions that turn into the exhilaration of the direct actions, the frustration when results are not gotten. There’s a generation now that are fighting for their lives, and becoming active—whether it’s healthcare or housing issues or being deported. Do you feel like that’s embedded in the film?

RC: Yes, in fact, especially now, it’s very related to the French political situation. I think it’s the same all over the world. We are in a very weak moment in France. In this film, you have a very strong contrast between the scenes in the theater, where are people are talking and debating, and the action scenes, and you have club scenes, where people are dancing. It was kind of the last time in France where speaking had political power. Our words could change the perceptions of things. It’s about that that I did this film, and of course, it’s related to activism. It’s related to the fact that we changed a lot of things at this moment of the French history about this epidemic. So it’s more about that that I did this film.


I really think, because, for instance, when you see France, our President Macron is introducing himself a little bit like the anti-Trump, but in fact, he’s very violent with migrants, for instance. He’s not very left wing or very open-minded. He’s really violent. The violence against migrants has never been so strong as today in France. And you see that political words are becoming more and more weak, and that’s really a shame.


After 10 years of the epidemic, as I said, we didn’t want to be the victims anymore, so we decided that we could say everything that we wanted, and we opened our mouths to say that we want all the drugs to be legal, we wanted rights for sex workers, et cetera. All those things were very important to us.


We are in such a situation now, because the politicians are saying all the same things. Globalization is so strong, economically, that we cannot do anything. In France, that’s the only discourse. So, doing politics and trying to change things is pointless. It’s the fault of the general economic situation, and it’s the fault of Europe. So I wanted to give a more exacting version of what political power can be. I think it’s difficult to re-create a group like this. I think, also, it’s difficult because of the internet. Back then was a time when you had to create, talk, and have debates together. We had to meet in the flesh, and that changed a lot of things. I think that on Facebook, you can have very radical points of view, but they are lost in the space. It doesn’t create real power, and that’s a disappointment.


It’s interesting, because ACT UP didn’t have a huge core center. It was just that the voices were very loud, and the people were there were strong, and it was the few that were changing such big things.

RC: Yeah, but honestly, we were so frustrated at the beginning of the epidemic. So frustrated. We really had to get loud. People who were engaging in ACT UP were very strong personalities, but very different personalities. There was an electricity between people which was very interesting, because you had people of very different social worlds. I tried to show that electricity in the film. That created a very strong movement.


That’s another thing that you have to figure: ACT UP Paris was inspired by ACT UP New York and ACT UP in the U.S., so in France it was a very new thing to do demonstrations and actions like we did. It was not very French. It was kind of exotic for people, and that’s why people were amazed by us. As I said, people thought we were legitimate. The politicians in front of us were afraid for their popularity, so they were really afraid of us. It was really funny in Cannes, because there were a lot of politicians who we were not so friendly with at the time who are saying that they are a little bit part of this history. That was really shameful.


They’re trying to write themselves in.

RC: Yes! Even people who were against gay marriage two years ago—they didn’t even see the film, and they don’t know what they are talking about. We’ve been invited to the president’s house, but we said, ‘No, of course not.’ The guy is such a hypocrite. He wanted to invite us to the Elysees, but we didn’t want to go there of course.


I love that the film’s title is related to music, and the film closes out with a sort of enmeshing of activism and club life. I feel like that must be the way you remember those times. Club life often strikes us as celebration, but I think, and I see it in your film, that it’s a place of healing.

RC: I could not go to enough parties at this time, because it was really, really sad. I understand the club and the music of this time. When I was writing the script, I started to listen to all this music—Masters at Work and Mr. Fingers and other club music of the early 90s. That was powerful for me.


Of course, I wanted to talk about the freedom of the body, and how we were free to dance, but at the same time, it was the reason we wanted to survive. Because we were so good at having pleasure. We were young. It’s part of the political subject—it’s very important.


Also, there’s something a little bit mystical about the club. For me, clubs are like cinema theaters. We don’t know where we are when we go there. We are at the same time together and alone, and we are in the dark, and we are looking at strange light phenomenon, and the club, for me, is really connected to cinema. I love it for the fact that we are like stars in the dark, and like we are going to disappear at some point. I really feel that clubs are a mystical dimension for gay men and queer people. It was a very important refuge for me.


The film was a tribute to my own muse—these moments I shared with people. When you are in the club, people look different. Even your friends and people you know look more sexual. They are more like strangers. I love this idea that you discover your friends again, and some people you don’t know, and people are all strangers to each other. In fact, you recognize that you’re alone in life, but that we are alone together, and I love this idea.


Queer cinema got a lot of attention in 2017—Moonlight won the Oscar, Call Me By Your Name is getting a lot of attention this year. Do you think there’s a greater movement for gay representation in film right now?

RC: I think so, really. You have Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name, and a lot of small films like mine, Stranger by the Lake, and Fantastic Woman. What you have is lots of queer films, which are so different from each other. And that’s a good thing. It’s good for the industry. People realize that these kinds of things can be a success.


And when I wrote my script, I didn’t try to make it mainstream. Never. The film is really inside ACT UP, you have all the characters who are gay have sex scenes, people are talking about education and about politics a lot. Of course, it could have been frightening for people to give us money to do the film, but it didn’t happen like that, because we had money from the national TV channel, and they really wanted to do this film, and to finance this film. And the film—not in your country, but in France—has been a big, big, big success. We had 800,000 spectators, which is one of the big successes in France, and that was not possible 10 years ago. Even my distributors believe in the film, and the film was a big success not only in Paris, but all over France, and that’s a good sign.


So, there’s room for more queer films and political films, and you think it will keep growing?

RC: Yes, I think so. It’s a time where generally minorities can be more represented in films, but it’s also a time where minorities can be directors of these films. It’s not a question of representation, it’s a question of genuine queer creation that can be a little bit more mainstream, and it can get the attention of the audience. That, for me, is the most important thing. Maybe my next film won’t be a gay film—maybe it will be a science fiction film—but I still am a queer director.


Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight, over the Christmas break tweeted about watching BPM, and how it should have been nominated for an Oscar. What’s your reaction to him being excited by the film?

RC: First of all, I very much liked Moonlight, and it’s always a pleasure when a director is saying things like this about your film. I think he realized that my film was a little bit of an outsider film, because it’s a French film, and it’s a long film, and people speak a lot, so that makes a lot of subtitles to read, so I was really touched by his attention.


I was also touched because ACT UP was inspired by groups in your country, and for me to come to the United States with this film, it’s really meaningful. When I showed the film in New York, there were a lot of former militants that came to the see the film, and, for me, that was amazing, because I was giving them back what they gave to me 25 years ago. I really appreciate when former militants or directors of your country are talking about my film, because when you do this kind of film, you need a lot of exposure. So I’m very touched that he liked the film.


This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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