French AIDS drama BPM shows Hollywood how to capture gay history

It has been a landmark year for LGBT cinema. From Moonlight’s Oscar victory to the triumphant Sundance premieres of gay romances God’s Own Country and Call Me By Your Name; from the transgender breakthrough of Chile’s A Fantastic Woman to the mainstream politicking of Battle of the Sexes, we’re seeing a wider-than-ever array of approaches to sexuality on film, no longer confined to the arthouse fringe. 

The biggest breakthrough of the lot, however, might be French writer-director Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute), which opens in US cinemas on Friday. Outwardly, Campillo’s sprawling, impassioned reflection on the formative years of Aids activist group Act-Up Paris doesn’t appear especially subversive. Meshing fact and fiction with formal grace, conscientious historical detail and a fascination with the to and fro of human debate – it’s not hard to tell that Campillo co-wrote Laurent Cantet’s thrillingly argument-driven The Class – it’s an A-grade prestige film that has met with acceptance and acclaim. Pedro Almodóvar’s jury handed it the Grand Prix award at Cannes, while France has selected it as their entry in this year’s foreign-language Oscar race, where it’s the strong favourite to win.

What’s new, you ask? We’ve seen Aids dramas before: they’ve been winning prizes since Tom Hanks accepted an Oscar in lachrymose fashion for Philadelphia in 1994. BPM, however, has about as much in common with Philadelphia as The Danish Girl does with Hedwig and the Angry Inch: Campillo’s film isn’t just a gay film, but an explicitly, ebulliently queer one, shot through not just with righteous political anger and equal-opportunity compassion, but joyous, unabashed carnality.

Until now, the Venn diagram of queer films and films expressly about LGBT history has been one of minimal overlap: previous films about the Aids epidemic and the advocacy movements it spawned have been largely tidy, tasteful affairs, geared more towards educating viewers unaffected by the disease than energising and emboldening those caught in its grip.

This is not a problem unique to the Aids-dedicated chapter of LGBT history on film: caution and conservatism persist in a multitude of real-life narratives that call for queerer treatment. Gus Van Sant’s Harvey Milk biopic was lively, intelligently researched and immaculately performed by Sean Penn – shame Van Sant, the director of the vividly queer My Own Private Idaho, felt the need to tiptoe around the horny realities of its subject’s sex life, even leaving a San Francisco bathhouse scene on the cutting-room floor.  Read more via the Guardian

Robin Campillo's 120 Beats Per Minute (120 battements par minute) - Trailer official (English) from Cannes (new)