The Director and Stars of “BPM” Open Up About Sex, Activism, and the Power of Words


Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, BPM (Beats Per Minute), French director Robin Campillo’s stylized, moving drama of AIDS activism and love, sometimes feels like several films at once. It follows the activities of ACT UP Paris in the early 1990s, and for much of its early scenes, we’re thrown into the raging debates of the organization’s contentious but highly organized weekly meetings. Gradually, the movie focuses on the growing, passionate relationship between newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), one of the group’s more vocal and boisterous members. With uncommon intelligence and tenderness, Campillo shows us how these two men navigate their relationship through the realities of the plague and the internal politics of ACT UP. (Nathan is HIV-negative, Sean is positive.)

I recently had a chance to speak to director Campillo and his two stars about BPM‘s diverse mix of styles, the legacy of ACT UP, and the film’s beautiful, touching sex scenes.

The film has an interesting structure. The early parts focus mostly on the internal debates in ACT UP, and then we move toward the romance between Nathan and Sean, until the final sections are taken up mostly by Sean’s illness. But all along, you also cut to scenes of the characters dancing in a club, and you continue to show us  actions and protests that ACT UP engages in.

Robin Campillo: When I first thought of this film, I wanted to talk about the power of words. There’s a short film by Godard called Puissance de la Parole [from 1988] that I thought a lot about. People are talking, and by doing so they’re creating things — imagining action, and posters, and creating new ways to perceive this epidemic. Such things can change reality. Today’s political discourse is so inefficient. On Facebook, people can be very radical and post radical texts about politics — but it has no effect on reality. I wanted to talk about this period in time, and this group, where it was possible. After 10 years of this epidemic, we were trapped in our silence, trapped in our closet as gay men. It was a moment where speech had become powerful for us; we had to say things that couldn’t have been said in France for many years. In France, you couldn’t talk about minorities, you couldn’t talk about communities. They were considered horrible words because we were such a good république and everyone was “equal” and all these fucking things. We wanted to change that.

I treated the film like this: You have an empty theater [where the discussions happen], which is like a brain, and that’s one dimension of the film. And the other dimension is the actions and protests, created by the words. Then you have another dimension, which is the clubbing. In France, we talk about a “river novel” or “river film.” I was thinking of this broad flow of movement, with a lot of characters, a lot of detail. And you have this character that you follow into the group, Nathan, but he’s like a blank, and he goes from a relationship with Sean to Thibault and comes back to Sean. He stops drifting because Sean is getting sick, and they are all together in the hospital, which is like a sinking boat, and then the apartment. So I thought of the movement of the film as a kind of river, and that’s why it was interesting to see the red River Seine at the end. That’s the moment where the river is going to the ocean — and the ocean for me is the last part when they are in the apartment.

How you shoot each of these dimensions changes over the course of the film as well. The early scenes of activism are chaotic – all very close, handheld. And then you portray the activism with more distance, more melancholy, until we’re finally watching from these overhead shots. Even the clubbing scenes feel different: Early on, it really does feel like they’re dancing and expressing their joy, but by the end, they don’t even look like they’re dancing — they’re more like flailing in the dark, whereas early on it felt celebratory.

RC: Most of the time, after I’ve seen about a quarter of a film, I understand all the aesthetic ideas and I get bored. I think cinema is about going from one form to another. Because as people, we go through different states, different atmospheres – even in one single day. I love this fluidity in cinema. I wanted the club scenes to become weirder and weirder. I love clubs the way I love cinemas: The way we all join in the dark and look at light phenomena. The difference is, when you are in the cinema you are looking at a screen, and when you are in a club, you look at other people, and they’re transformed. We have this house music, which we loved at the time — it was like party music but there was also a kind of melancholy and anxiety in this. And at the end of the film, the music feels like gospel. The last club scene, the people are not looking at each other. As we say, to go to the cinema is to be alone together. And the club scene at the end, for me, is something about cinema. We are like light filaments, like stars — we will at some point fade away, absolutely.

Arnaud and Nahuel, the relationship between your characters Nathan and Sean runs a wide range of emotions and dynamics. At the beginning, you’re total strangers, but then gradually you become very close. How do you develop that kind of intimacy?

Arnaud Valois: We’d done some rehearsal before, especially the sex scenes, but I think the work really started when we were auditioning for the film. And then conditioning yourself, like thinking, “This is your boyfriend.” And maybe by touching each other as well, to get used to one another. We spent a lot of time together when we weren’t shooting.

Nahuel Pérez Biscayart: Yeah, it’s about spending time, mainly. It was often impossible to meet before. Arnaud, he has a very different life, and I’ve got a very different life. The guys back then, they were thrown together because they were sick. But they had very little in common except AIDS, HIV. Then there’s a chemistry that you can’t really force; that’s always a big surprise, because it’s something that is not produced by you or by the other, but by the combination of the two bodies. But I always felt that I could open up with Arnaud/Nathan.

The other work we did together was just to talk a lot with Robin, read some books, watch some documentaries. I think that we were all in the same mood: We tried to just lie back in that time — not as a period thing, but that intensity, that moment, that emergency. And I think that we all identified with the fight, even though we weren’t really around at that time.

How familiar were you with ACT UP Paris?

NPB: Zero. People would ask, “Hey, Nahuel, do you know ACT UP?” And I was like, “I’m sorry, what’s ACT UP?” “You don’t know ACT UP?” “No.” But also, I’m from Argentina. There was no ACT UP in Argentina.

AV: I was 8 or 9 in ’92 or ’93, so I didn’t know much about ACT UP. I knew the name and the action they did putting on the pink condom on the obelisk, but that’s it. I didn’t know the DNA of the group, or the identity, or words, or actions.

Robin, you were a member of ACT UP. But the film doesn’t shy away from showing it as a controversial group, even among people who agreed with its ultimate goals. I love the opening scene, where this poor guy we don’t know is giving a speech, and he gets smeared in fake blood and handcuffed to a post. You’re not afraid to put us immediately into a situation where we might actually disapprove of ACT UP’s actions.

RC: This action happened, but not on this kind of guy. It happened to a doctor who was involved in the transfusion scandal in France, so it was maybe more justified. But I wanted to show something that was a little unfair and controversial — because we were dodgy sometimes. I’m not sure I was the best militant; I went there because I needed to be in this group. Sometimes, we’d be doing an action, and during the action, I’d be thinking, “Oh, this is going too far.”

At the same time, I was angry at the people we were protesting, too. I was angry because it was as if they had forced me to be a militant, by not listening to what we were saying. I was angry because of what was going on during the ’80s and the fact that we were dying out, and that our problems didn’t seem to exist for the rest of society. So many of these people were so indifferent to what we were living through. I didn’t want to be a militant. But the fact that we had all this electricity inside the group and this kind of tension, it’s why ACT UP was great. This was before the Internet, so if you wanted to confront government, if you wanted to confront the laboratories, you had to confront each other first, because there’s nothing better than collective intelligence.

In the film, there’s something almost utopian about ACT UP’s weekly meetings. They’re very democratic. Everybody gets to speak. It’s very tolerant, and people follow the rules. This seems to go against the myth that when people are in truly desperate circumstances, they will become more violent, more irrational. Many of these people are dying — the most desperate circumstance you can imagine – and yet they’re committed to the rules and to the openness of this organization.

RC: This was very American; we were inspired by ACT UP New York. We were arguing a lot because we thought, especially in France, that the politicians were not very pragmatic about this disease and about this epidemic. We were condemned, like a curse, but there was no communication. We didn’t exist. I was so afraid of the disease that I wouldn’t even open a newspaper if the word “AIDS” was on it, you know? So, I was fed up with this attitude. When I came to ACT UP, it’s because we were confronting the epidemic and we were putting out words about a lot of small topics which were very crucial in the struggle. Speech was liberated, and it was incredible to share all these things and be honest together. Didier Lestrade, who cofounded the group, felt from the beginning that we had to be very objective. Remember, most of the news we got — the new details and data – were horrible for the people who were sick. Usually, there’s a doctor between you and the data. But we were confronting things and people directly. Didier thought that we should stop being afraid — that we should think about this epidemic and produce things about it, and not just play the victim and act like children in front of the doctors and the politicians. We had to behave and take care of ourselves.

Nahuel, you go through a pretty significant transformation, as your character gets sicker and sicker. Sean is so buoyant and full of vitality early on – he even performs as a cheerleader during one Pride march. The next time we see him at a Pride march, he looks like a ghost.

NPB: I lost weight. Like fifteen pounds. The rest was performance and makeup. It was quite hard to lose the weight, because it was while we were shooting every day and working, and I was cutting carbs, etc., everything that I didn’t have to eat. So the process that I went through was accompanying the path of the character. Painful, but helpful, too — you’re more vulnerable, and the people around you see that you’re going through something.

AV: It was strange for me to see Nahuel at the beginning so full of life, as you said, and then going down and down and down. It was like mixing reality and fiction. It was Sean, but it was like [sigh], “Poor Nahuel.”

NPB: I wanted the shooting to end. One day we had a little accident — I got some lights on my face — and things got to a point where I was like, “Okay, please, I really want the film to end.” Because at one point you can’t do more than what you’re doing.

RC: It’s all about acting, really. I didn’t want to show too much stigmata. I wanted it to be a little realistic, but we didn’t go too far. Because first of all you have films about that, like this film I love called Silverlake Life: The View from Here, a documentary. I just wanted to show the simple fact that Sean is tired of life. And that’s all on Nahuel. The way he’s looking around him when he’s in the hospital, when he stares at the TV, and he looks like a bird with the mouth open, and he doesn’t seem to see what’s around him. That’s more important than the actual physical transformation: Someone fading away from his own life.

Arnaud, you also have to do a lot of emoting, and crying, especially in the last 20 to 30 minutes of the film.

AV: It is difficult because you can’t always relate it to something real that you experienced. So, you have to find another way.

RC: [to Arnaud] Your character was always reserved, protecting himself, while the other character is burdening himself with the disease and with the political struggle. You have this moment which is very hard [when Nathan realizes that Sean is dead].

AV: Yes. The hands.

RC: I said, “I want you to make me feel that the body is cold.” It’s freezing — the corpse of his boyfriend. Right after, you have to play something which is also very difficult. Nathan says, “Il est mort,” “He’s dead,” twice. He says it the first time for himself, like a rehearsal…

AV: And then he says it to the mother. That was the most difficult thing I had to do in the movie. “Il est mort,” two times. For me, and then for the mother — like playing, like an act.

Let’s talk about the sex scene. I love the fact that it comes so soon after the scene where they’re giving out the condoms at the school. So, we get a contrast between this very public-facing, “Always use condoms” declaration, and then suddenly they’re in bed and there’s almost this negotiation of when to use condoms. I found that so human and touching. There’s a whole narrative to the scene itself, which directors often say is the key to a good sex scene.

NPB: Yeah, we rehearsed it a lot. We tried to find a natural choreography that we could feel was fluid and organic…

AV: Because we had two cameras…

NPB: So we always had to find the right angles. Because if you just start playing around, you start seeing things that you shouldn’t see, or you start blocking your partner.

AV: And then you have to build in the words as well.

NPB: Yes. To me the hardest thing was not being with Arnaud, bare-chested or naked or whatever. It was the words and the way you say those words. Because it’s the first moment in which those characters open up, and they start imagining something together. It’s a very crucial spark that should be born at that very moment. You have to be very relaxed. If you’re anxious, your breath starts going weird and people will see it and hear it. We were all very nervous, of course, because there are cameras and other people, and nobody fucks when other people are around. [Laughs] It’s the most intimate moment you can share with somebody.

RC: I didn’t want the scene to be a performance. I wanted it to be clumsy sex. It’s not the Kama Sutra. I feel so guilty sometimes when I see people having [elaborate] sex on screen, and I think, “I must be so dull!”

I love to show the whole process. I hate in films when people are already naked in bed. I love the fact that people take off their clothes. And the fact that they are taking condoms, they are putting gel, all those things. That’s the kind of thing people don’t show, because they think it wastes time. I also think of the sex scene like a séance, where the ghosts of the other lovers are summoned. So at some point it’s almost like a threesome. There’s something very important to say about that. I lost my first boyfriend. And when I think of him, I miss him – not only because I would like to talk to him, but I miss his body, and I miss the moments when we were so intimate. I remember the first time we had sex, it was before the epidemic, and our bodies were unconscious of all that. I’m very nostalgic for that. Really, it was so great. And now it’s over forever. I will never go back to that moment.