TIFF Day #4: “BPM (Beats Per Minute)” and “Downsizing”

Nahuel Perez Biscayart as Sean, in "BPM"
Nahuel Perez Biscayart, as Sean, in “BPM”

French writer/director Robin Campillo has long known how to tell a good story.  He co-wrote the scripts for two of Laurent Cantet’s socially conscious films (Time Out and The Class), as well as writing and directing the film that formed the basis for the haunting TV series Les Revenants.

However, with BPM (Beats Per Minute), he’s outdone these previous efforts, winning this year’s Grand Prix at Cannes in the process.  In BPM, he and co-writer Philippe Mangeot drew from their involvement in ACT UP Paris to give an immersive view of life within this organization.  As one of their characters says, this is an era when politics were lived in the first person.

Set in the early ‘90s, this is the time when AIDS death rates were appallingly high, in a country that had twice the infection rate of Britain or Germany.  This is the period when AZT and DDI were on the market, but when the game-changing protease inhibitors were still in the development pipeline.

By dropping us immediately into an ACT UP weekly meeting, and with hand-held camera work imparting a vivid intensity to the onscreen drama, it took me a while to realize I wasn’t watching a documentary.  (This was doubtlessly abetted by the fact that I recognized none of the actors in BPM and their total conviction in playing out their craft.)  Based on my knowledge of ACT UP’s history, the fictionalized interpersonal conflict in the midst of nonviolent shock protest tactics felt utterly true to life.

Before focusing primarily on the lives of Sean (an HIV-positive founder of ACT UP Paris) and Nathan (an HIV-negative newbie to activism), we first meet a wider swath of ACT UP members.  Among others, there are Thibault, a fellow leader whom Sean detests; Marco, an HIV-positive hemophiliac; and Helene, his mother.

Arnaud Valois, as Nathan, in "BPM"
Arnaud Valois, as Nathan, in “BPM”

Campillo plunges us into ACT UP’s guerilla activism.  We witness them lob water balloons filled with fake blood at indifferent politicians and break into a pharmaceutical company’s headquarters, before forming a brittle alliance with their executives and researchers.

Partway through BPM, a committed romance takes root between Sean and Nathan.  The film takes its time in showing their first sexual encounter:  the awkward pauses to apply condoms, the pillow talk of how Sean became “poz.”

The group’s pressure on politicians and drug companies acquires a greater urgency as Sean’s T cell count plummets.  Perhaps foreshadowing his own demise, ACT UP turns the funeral of one of their members into a street demonstration.

For anyone who has seen How to Survive a Plague or A Normal Heart – both excellent recountings of ACT UP’s founding in New York – much of the street activism and internecine squabbling will feel familiar.  However, there is a Gallic particularity to the work of ACT UP Paris.  Unlike their American counterparts, they draw from a cultural memory of barricades and street revolution.  During the aforementioned funeral, they reminisce optimistically about the Revolution of 1848, when a parade of corpses brought down the monarchy, hoping the publicized deaths of AIDS victims will lead to the downfall of an indifferent Mitterand.

There is also an intimate, vivid artfulness to BPM that is lacking in these earlier films.  In a party scene, dust motes above the dance floor morph into a microscopic image of an infected white blood cell, showing how disease even spills into celebratory moments.  More powerful yet, a later scene rapidly intercuts among video of protesting, screwing, and dancing – an embodiment of the complexities of these activists’ lives.  (4.5 out of 5 stars)

Kristen Wiig and Matt Damon, as Audrey and Paul, in "Downsizing"
Kristen Wiig and Matt Damon, as Audrey and Paul, in “Downsizing”

Earlier this same day, I had the chance to see Alexander Payne’s latest film, Downsizing, which he humorously introduced as a disappointing continuation of the themes of his earlier work, even if wearing the garb of a sci-fi tale.

Payne was at least partly right.  Anyone who has seen films like Election, Sideways, or Nebraska will recognize his characterizations that are a strange admixture of empathy and stunted faith in humanity’s goodness.  And while I wouldn’t call Downsizing disappointing, its ending did feel Hollywood predictable.

Downsizing opens with a Norwegian scientist (Rolf Lassgard, so wonderful in 2015’s A Man Called Ove) making a discovery that could save our planet from the consequences of overpopulation.  After decades of work, Jorgen and his team have found a way to shrink people to 1/2000th of their original size.

Several years later, a tiny fraction of humanity has opted to “get small,” leading to some comic juxtapositions, such as big and little people travelling cross-country in the same airplane.  A Nebraska occupational therapist, Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) elects to be an early adopter of this new technology, largely to placate the lusts of his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) for a bigger house and nicer stuff, since micro-goods are so much cheaper.

When Audrey bails on the shrinking process, unbeknownst to her husband until he’s already tiny, Paul begins to realize that life in mini-McMansion Leisureland is not everything he’d hoped for.  The same economic inequalities are present for tiny people, manifested in the lives of black marketeer Dusan (a smarmy Christoph Waltz) and immigrant housecleaner Ngoc Lan Chan (a spunky Hong Chau).

There is comedic dissonance aplenty in this film, behind which Payne conceals a despairing message:  any efforts to save ourselves from global disaster are doomed to mutate into selfish efforts to elevate our selves at the expense of those around us.  (3.5 out of 5 stars)

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