Young bodies gyrate, sway and sometimes fall into a hot embrace in the most ecstatic moments of "BPM (Beats Per Minute)," a restless, engrossing dramatic portrait of Parisian activists fighting the AIDS pandemic in the early 1990s. Pitched between the long, anxious scenes of group discussion that make up much of the narrative, these dance sequences, awash in throbbing electronica and neon-blue lighting, play like bursts of abstract punctuation — an opportunity for the characters to get some much-needed downtime.
The act of dancing is, of course, its own form of protest, a defiant expression of life from a group toiling in the shadow of death. One longtime member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), welcoming a few new recruits to their first meeting, instructs them to express agreement with a speaker not by clapping their hands, but by snapping their fingers, which will limit disruptions and keep the discussion moving. For these activists, some of whom we see popping AZT and other pills during meetings, there isn't a moment to waste.
"BPM" is steeped in such vividly specific details, and it moves with the same crackling urgency. The movie, which recently won the Grand Prix at Cannes and will represent France in the Oscar race for best foreign-language film, is a highly personal project for its writer-director, Robin Campillo ("Eastern Boys"), and his co-writer, Philippe Mangeot, who drew on their own experiences as members of ACT UP Paris in the '90s. They have made a sprawling, passionate tribute to the power of organized protest, one that derives its authenticity from not only moments of fierce, confrontational action, but also extended elaborations of policy and procedure.
If that sounds dry or uninvolving, it isn't. Plunging us into a not-so-distant moment when AIDS was decimating the LGBT community, among others, this is clear-eyed, present-tense historical filmmaking that refuses the consolations of hindsight or nostalgia. The dialogue crackles with anger; even the simplest exchanges seem brusque, testy, drained of the usual pleasantries. Nary a moment passes when we aren't reminded of how high the stakes are and how vigilant those on the front lines have become.
Among their many goals, they seek to combat the French government's silent indifference toward gays and lesbians, drug users and others affected by HIV and AIDS, and to call out the dishonesty of pharmaceutical firms withholding potentially life-saving new treatments from those who could most stand to benefit. But one of the movie's insights is that such sweeping change can only be accomplished through a steady flow of argument and negotiation, by tactical adjustments and compromises plotted out and refined through an endless system of trial and error.
A granular epic, "BPM" spends much of its 142-minute running time in a university lecture hall where ACT UP Paris members, most but not all of them young gay men, gather each week to hammer out policy, plan future protests and debrief earlier ones. Advancing the narrative strategy he employed in "The Class" (2008), the superb Palme d'Or-winning drama he wrote with the director Laurent Cantet, Campillo makes riveting cinema of these frequently contentious debates, aided by Jeanne Lapoirie's dynamic cinematography and his own nimble editing. Most of all, he relies on the furious chemistry and concentration of his actors, who brilliantly trace the alliances and fault lines running beneath the group's fragile unity.
Outside that lecture hall, we see the activists promoting their cause, whether passing out condoms at a high school or shaking pompoms at a Gay Pride parade, but the camera rarely follows them into their homes or workplaces. (It's late into the film before we even learn what some of them do for a living.) Despite or perhaps due to the script's limited vantage, we end up learning as much about them as we might have gleaned from a more conventionally character-driven approach.
The key players include the group's slick but polarizing leader, Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), and a steely, competent organizer, Sophie (Adèle Haenel), who try to keep their members on the moral high ground even when they're, say, crashing a medical conference and pelting the speaker with fake blood. But it's hard to maintain order even at their own meetings, which are invariably undermined by some of the group's more rebellious participants, none more outspoken than Sean (a brilliantly puckish Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who pushes for a more disruptive and even violent form of advocacy.
Every movie about an organization's intimate workings needs an outsider's fresh perspective, and here that audience-surrogate role is filled by Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a studly newcomer who soon becomes romantically involved with Sean. The delicate matter of the lovers' respective HIV statuses, and how that affects their cautious but appreciably active sex life, are addressed here with exquisite tenderness and matter-of-fact candor. In one extraordinary scene notable for its hot-blooded sensuality and its intricate, bittersweet play with memory, "BPM" treats sex as not just an expression of love or lust, but an act of life-affirming reclamation. For a young man with little left to lose, it's one way to give death the finger.
One might argue that in its final moments, marked by passages of breathtaking surrealism and mournful silence, the movie becomes indulgent and unwieldy, that its need to tie up emotional loose ends winds up toppling its exquisite balance. But the beauty of "BPM," and what connects its hard-fought, well-remembered battles to those of the present, lies in its willingness to embrace life in all its messiness, its refusal to pretend that the personal isn't also political and vice versa. You may well weep at the end, but you might also feel like snapping your fingers.
'BPM (Beats Per Minute)'
(In French with English subtitles)
Running time: 2 hours, 22 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles; AMC Dine-In Sunset 5, West Hollywood