France’s Oscar entry BPM (Beats per Minute) pulsates with the sheer fun of activism. Director/co-writer Robin Campillo based it on his time in the AIDS activist group ACT UP Paris, and the film captures arguably the darkest period of the epidemic, the time just before the advent of life-saving protease inhibitors in the ’90s. BPM’s sprawling narrative treats us to extended ACT UP strategy meetings (so layered, impassioned, and realistic they seem cut out of a Frederick Wiseman documentary), portrayals of the type of civil disobedience the activist group enacted (a raid of a pharmaceutical company, throwing balloons full of fake blood at politicians), and the group’s off-duty time spent dancing to house music in Paris discothèque. At BPM’s heart is the romance between HIV-positive ACT UP fixture Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and chiseled newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois), who’s HIV negative but loves Sean fearlessly.
In an interview a few weeks ago, Campillo told me that he based Nathan on himself. We discussed what AIDS did to his conception of sex as a young man, his unabashed portrayal of gay sexuality on screen, and why he rejects the notion of “universality” as it applies to his film. A condensed and edited (and slightly spoiler-y) transcript of my conversation with the French director is below.
JEZEBEL: What made you conceive this project?
ROBIN CAMPILLO: I was 20 years old in ’82 when the epidemic started in the newspaper in France. That was horrible. I was a young gay guy and all these newspapers were talking about how most gay men were going to die of this disease. I was so afraid of that. I always wanted to be a director so I went to cinema school in ’83. Because I was so paralyzed by this epidemic, it seemed like cinema was useless. Especially all the film directors that I loved—many of the guys from the French New Wave or [Luc] Besson or these kind of new French directors. I realized that in their cinema, there was no disease. They were only healthy people. Cinema was useless to express what was going on. When Nathan in the film is talking about his past and his first boyfriend, that’s exactly my story. That’s me talking directly to the audience.
In ’92, I went to ACT UP and I became a militant for many years. Strangely, I think I was recording everything when I was in this group. I was working unconsciously. After my first film in 2004, I tried to write a script about AIDS but AIDS is not an object of cinema by itself. You have to find something. I didn’t find what I wanted to talk about, what I wanted to shoot. Then I realized it was in front of my eyes, what I wanted to talk about: This moment where gay people stopped being victims of the epidemic and became quite the evil fags and shocked society and changed the representation of the disease. It took me all this time to realize something which is obvious.
Did you have an opinion on the movies that have previously handled AIDS?
In The Celluloid Closet, Harvey Firestein says something that I love: Even if a [gay] character is a little bit of a caricature, at least he was gay. I have the same feeling about AIDS. OK, some films were stupid, but they were talking about AIDS. We had a few bad films in France, but even Philadelphia I was buying it all. There are a few that I love. I like very much Silverlake Life: The View from Here and I saw United in Anger, which is on ACT UP. I didn’t see How To Survive a Plague. I was starting to work on my film and I was afraid of being influenced. I didn’t do the script out of documents. I did the film out of only my memories. I searched from some documents about laboratories to be sure I wasn’t saying stupid things. But mostly, it was my memories. It’s like fantasy. It’s an interpretation of the reality. It’s not historical exactly.
How did the emergence of AIDS during your coming of age shape your relationship with sex?
It changed a lot of things. I was so afraid that I stopped having sex in ’83, and I go back to sex in ’89.
What caused that change?
I was convinced that condoms were working. First of all, I thought I could be infected because I didn’t know. I didn’t want to have something to do with all that, so I protected myself too much. That was a kind of denial. When I realized that condoms were working, that was the second sexual revolution for me. That was so fun, to have sex with people without thinking of HIV. That was liberation. I had this first boyfriend and I had sex with him in 1989, and after that I understood he was HIV positive. But to be able to make love with him again, that was amazing. I was having sex before the epidemic and I will live all my life nostalgic of the time before because we were so unconscious of everything. There was a kind of freedom. I don’t know how the young guys are [today]...
I would argue that for a lot of young guys, we’re actually back to a mindset similar to that which existed before AIDS thanks to PrEP and TasP.
Really do you think? I do agree with you that it’s a good thing, but at the time we were absolutely unconscious.
Right, so there is a little bit of a difference.
Sometimes I have sex without condoms, of course, with my boyfriend, but it’s not the same thing. It’s something else. When I got to ACT UP of course people had a lot of sex in ACT UP, but now it’s different and I think it’s such good news that people on treatment don’t transmit the virus. It took me ages to accept that. I’m a condom guy. When I realized that was all true, I thought it was amazing.
Most of your cast is white.
Is that an accurate reflection of ACT UP Paris back then?
I think in ACT UP New York, it was a little bit different. But in France, it was really, really white. I thought a lot about it [when making the film]. It’s very difficult. You have to choose: Are you historical or will you change a little bit? I thought at some point it would be unfair to be wrong. It was a very white group, and we have to accept that. We were a little bit ashamed of that. It was a time in France, I think for black or Arab people, when it was difficult as gay men to accept themselves and they wouldn’t come to this kind of group. I decided to be very close to the reality—you have a few black people—but not go too far. It’s the same for the trans [population]—you have a small trans group, but there were not trans at all at this moment. They came like five years after. We were mostly gay and lesbians and most of us were white. For the character of Nathan, I decided I should see black actors anyway, but I wasn’t convinced by the actors who came to the [screentests]. But you’re right, that was a real problem.
Something that this movie telegraphs is the thrill of activism. Was that part of your mission?
Yes. When I was so afraid of this disease and an editor on TV news, I was editing segments about ACT UP. There was kind of something very sexy about it. I was kind of in the closet because of the epidemic—I was openly gay, but I was removed from everything. I did not know about anything about the gay community. The guy who helped me write the script, Philippe Mangeot, I remember him very well in the streets with his T-shirt and I was thinking, “Oh my god, the guy looks so strong.” There was some kind of pride, which was very engaging. When I went to this group, the first meeting was so funny. There was such jubilation all the time, I thought, “Where are the diseases?” People looked so healthy because there was such energy, such electricity between people. People were talking so much, we were so excited.
It was very unfair because we were young and people were dying very young and this was horrible and also because we were so good at having sex, at having fun, at taking drugs, at all these things. That’s why we wanted to survive. It’s not just because we wanted a life and a job. It’s because we were so good at living and finding pleasure in everything. That was the crucial part of our lives. That’s why it was so important for me to show this humor, this self-distance, which is also very gay I think and something very important to us. I wanted to hear the way we were talking at the time. There was a kind of melody that was not as dull as the kind of debate you’d hear at the Parliament. I wanted to hear that sounds. All these details were so important, the dancing and clubbing were important and the house music was so important to us.
A lot of gay media keeps sex at arm’s length. In Call Me By Your Name the camera consciously pans away from the characters when they start having sex. Your movie is much more explicit than typical. Is portraying sex in an unabashed way part of your politics?
It’s very simple: I like to film sex. It’s like the most important moment of incarnation, to have sex. For me, I like to film sex, I like to film clubbing, I like to film places where you don’t have so much light. At at a disco, people are strange and you discover their faces in the darkness. All those things for me are like the same substance. I couldn’t explain why but I feel I have a natural tropism to do this kind of thing. Of course, in this film, we are talking about AIDS. We are talking about sexually transmitted diseases and we are talking about two people falling in love. I think the sex scenes in my film are very different from each other. I said to my actors before we shot it, “It’s like a continent. You have so many things to do in this scene.” And we did it in one day. They were so exhausted. That was quite funny for me. It’s pleasure to do it. I told them, “It’s a normal scene, so I won’t talk to you like [whispers].” I will talk to you normally because if we start like this, it will be a disaster. Of course, the scene is not only sex. They are getting naked, they have to put a condom, they have to put gel, and when they came, they have to take the condom out or they have sperm on them. All those details to me are not absolutely sordid. I love all these details. I think that’s life and I love to film that. When they are kissing each other and you can see saliva on their mouths...all those details enchant me, really.
I thought it was audacious to have Nathan coordinate sex the day Sean dies.
For straight people, that’s like cheating. You can think that, or you can think it’s sexual friendship. Of course [the character] Thibault would like so much to have sex with Nathan that it’s a date. It doesn’t mean they’re a new couple. It happened a lot in reality at the time. People didn’t want to stay alone. It was really human. I didn’t do it to shock people.
I thought it was great. The audience has gotten to know and love this character for two and a half hours and then you say, “I’m going to show you this unabashed facet of his sexuality.”
Exactly. People were telling me [about the movie], “Oh, it’s so universal.” But I didn’t write it that way. You have only gay and lesbians, you have gay sex and the scenes are not very short, you’re talking about medication, someone dies…I say to people, “At what time is it universal?” But I didn’t try to explain so much, I just tried to make a genealogy of this epidemic, and not just a historical genealogy, but a sensual genealogy and an emotional genealogy, because that was so important to us. We were our bodies.