“Molecules for anal sex fools” is the English transliteration of a slogan that members of Paris ACT UP coin in Robin Campillo‘s French-language drama BPM. (It puns on cul.) The meetings are tense and often go late into the night, but the group’s dedication is ferocious and leavened by moments of tenderness. A fraught remembrance of when a diagnosis of HIV still meant near-certain death and AZT made many people sicker rather than better, BPM was the toast of Cannes this year, winning the Grand Prix. Campillo is a veteran of ACT UP — the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power — and his film depicts early-’90s activism at its rawest, interspersed with period footage, an artful sex scene-turned-confession, and a marvelous club scene that ends in a close-up of the HIV virus itself.
Through direct actions like pelting bureaucrats with fake blood, storming high schools to distribute safe-sex pamphlets, and getting arrested at the offices of pharmaceutical companies, the assertive Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayar) butts heads with the comparatively moderate Sophie (Adèle Haenel) and Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) while falling in love with HIV-negative newbie Nathan (Arnaud Valois). Strategizing on how best to battle the French medical establishment’s foot-dragging, they also have to take on Thibault’s internalized homophobia. Brittle and bitter, he’s as much at war against frivolous, apolitical gays as against an indifferent State. He gets the last word, though: Scoffed at for behaving as though he’ll live much longer, Thibault throws back, “I act as if I will.” BPM is proof of the uneasy relationship between militants and moderates, and how bringing about real social change probably requires both personality types. Most of all, these people are brave. Think of them the next time you retweet a meme and call it a day.
BPM, opens Friday.