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‘BPM’ Review: Powerful AIDS Drama Could Be Awards Bound

Robin Campillo’s film about the early days of ACT UP in Paris packs an emotional wallop and left the Cannes audience in tears

Robin Campillo’s 1990s-set AIDS drama “BPM” — originally called “120 Beats Per Minute” — got the best kind of mixed reaction at its first press screening at the Cannes Film Festival last May. While some in the audience found it absolutely stunning, others just settled for very, very good. (The film won the Jury Grand Prize and was named France’s official entry in the foreign-language-film race for this year’s Oscars.)

Campillo’s intelligent and moving film starts as an ensemble piece, tracking several different members of the Paris branch of ACT UP, an activist group dedicated to educating, advocating and, when it calls for it, agitating to help alleviate the AIDS crisis.

The riveting first half hour is set entirely at one meeting, which begins by honoring some of group’s recently departed (death is the unseen member of this twentysomething social circle) before devolving into a heated debate about the tactics and ultimate benefits of a recent intervention. The scene is aided by “Rashomon”-like flashbacks depicting what the members alternately view as a failed or wildly successful recent protest.

Campillo recognizes that the fervent intensity that drives someone to become an activist — that burning passion to make the world a better place — is the same passion that can cause schisms and acrimony with equally like-minded associates.

The first half of the film follows the group as they bicker and mourn, plan protests and party like there’s no tomorrow, because for many of them that is grimly true.

He also recognizes that even those united by a common goal can be divided by petty difference, and though the group barrels forward, it does so bogged down by ego, resentment and sexual tension.

Actress Adele Haenel (of the Dardenne brothers’ “The Unknown Girl” and Celine Sciamma’s “Water Lilies”) is probably the biggest name in the cast, but she takes a back seat during the film’s second half, which follows the evolving relationship between two members of the group.

Nathan (Arnaud Valois) is HIV-negative, but Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) doesn’t have the same luck — and just as their romance begins to blossom, Sean’s condition takes a turn for the worst. Theirs is a story we’ve seen told many times before, though that hardly takes away from the pain of losing a partner in slow motion.

And if the second half of the film is more conventional, it also packs a powerful emotional wallop. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house for the last twenty minutes of this 140-minute film.

Can all those tears lead the way to awards gold? We’ll just have to wait and see.