Arnaud Valois as Nathan in BPM (Beats per Minute) (TIFF)

Year in and year out, the Toronto International Film Festival skims the crème de la crème of the Cannes Film Festival, and this year is no exception as the intelligent and invigorating BPM (Beats Per Minute), the winner of the festival’s Grand Prix, makes its North American debut in Toronto. Screening during the festival’s opening weekend, it joins two films that were, hands down, the best that Cannes had to offer last May: Agnès Varda’s latest memoir documentary/road show Faces Places and The Rider, Chloé Zhao’s beautiful blend of fiction and documentary.  

Filmmaker Robin Campillo made his Cannes directorial debut with this, his third feature, though he’s no stranger to its red carpet, having co-written the 2008 Palme d’Or winner The Class, directed by Laurent Cantet. (Campillo also co-wrote another film at this year’s Cannes, The Workshop, helmed again by Cantet.) His last film as director, Eastern Boys, a sadly underseen gem, won a best film prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2013.   

During the early 1990s, Campillo was, according to press notes, a “rank and file member of Act Up, but rather active,” who took part in numerous actions that he has said inspired the film, although he emphasizes that his movie is fiction. After seeing his film, you’ll have to hand it to Campillo; BPM thrives on political (and hormonal) energy. The bickering among the group’s members turns wonky, vicious, and lively. At its best, the drama highlights the inner tensions and the ego stroking and busting within the Paris chapter of Act Up, founded in line with its New York City counterpart to defend the rights of people living with the HIV virus.   

Campillo’s screenplay, which he co-wrote with Philippe Mangeot, gently pushes the viewer right into the inner workings of the volunteer activist organization. The group takes a multipronged approach: direct action against a pharmaceutical company for delaying the results of drug trials and the rampant homophobia among the political establishment. The viewer catches up to speed on the rules for speaking and debate in no time: the clicking of fingers indicates approval—this keeps the debate flowing without delay.  

Shot documentary-style (with a lot of hand-held camerawork), viewers feel as though they are eavesdropping on the weekly brainstorming meetings. The large ensemble brings a sense of urgency to verbose sequences that are basically policy-setting sessions in a bare lecture hall. (You could replace the hissing at the mention of President Francois Mitterrand with President Ronald Reagan, who infamously did not publicly speak about AIDS until years into the epidemic.)   

Immediately, Campillo depicts the stakes that are at hand. In its opening minutes, half-a-dozen protestors interrupt a conference. What was supposed to be a protest of an ineffectual HIV prevention ad campaign turns out to be potentially a publicity debacle: no one is hurt, but the main speaker is splattered with blood—fake blood—and dragged and handcuffed to a post by the group. Not all of the actions are as highly charged. When activists barge into a high school to pass out condoms (the school lacks a condom dispenser), they are welcomed with opened palms, giggles, and some sneers.  

The film works best when it casts a wide net on the community of activists. The camaraderie is felt so strongly that it feels unnecessary and somewhat distracting when the focus turns away from the organization and toward individuals, namely two young men: a firebrand in failing health, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), and Nathan (Arnaud Valois), one of the few men in the group who is HIV negative. Although this storyline makes the political personal, the tension slackens whenever the director switches gears, and it almost becomes another film.  

While the conflicts ebb and flow during the planning meetings, the concluding sequences lumber, haltingly moving the film forward. Sequences become elongated and padded, impeding the previously pointed, direct storytelling—there are at least six dance club celebrations. (The original French title is 120 battements par minute). The one major source of rumbling among critics last May was BPM’s 144-minute length; it’s about 20 minutes too long. It hasn’t been re-edited since Cannes, unlike the Palme d’Or winner, The Square, which was reportedly trimmed down from its 142-minute running time.       

According to a colleague who participated in Act Up New York, most of its members were in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, and women took part in large numbers. Here, gay men in their 20s and early 30s dominate, with a handful of women in leadership roles. Another huge departure is that the Paris outfit trashes the austerely white corporate offices of Big Pharma, splattering the walls and computers with fake blood—again—yet the issue of liability over what would likely be considered an act of vandalism is out of mind. Curiously, the price of medication is not an issue among the Parisians, whereas in the United States, drugs such as AZT were enormously expensive.   

With a light hand, the film includes such nostalgic hallmarks as the Bronski Beat’s 1984 “Smalltown Boy” electropop anthem and early ’90s off-the-rack wardrobe—a reminder that fashions really haven’t changed too much in the last 25 years; there will always be plaid shirts and jean jackets. However, the rate of HIV infection today remains widespread in many communities in the U.S., especially among people of color.  

And since the last presidential election, the spirit of Act Up has recently been transformed. Former New York City group members have regrouped as Rise and Resist, dedicated “to opposing, disrupting, and defeating any government act that threatens democracy, equality, and our civil liberties,” according to its website. Its recent actions have included a demonstration at Trump Tower. In spirit and in deed, BPM is far from a period piece.  

BPM (Beats per Minute) will screen at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10 and 12, and will be released by the Orchard on October 20.