One of the most striking scenes in BPM (Beats Per Minute), Robin Campillo’s historical fiction film about ACT UP in Paris in the early 1990s, is a sex scene — the first between Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who is HIV-positive. After the two start dancing at a club, lights strobing as their bodies move in and out of the darkness, the scene changes seamlessly. Suddenly they’re falling into bed and frantically undressing themselves. But before they get too far, Sean tells Nathan he prefers to wear a condom — “it’s safer that way” — and Nathan, who is HIV-negative, obliges.
They sixty-nine — Sean repositioning himself, reaching for a condom, opening it, and putting it on in a single motion — and we watch Sean’s free hand grip the muscle of Nathan’s ass between his legs before sitting up again and giving in to Nathan. Afterward the two disengage, and we hear the sound of condoms being pulled off, Sean carefully knotting his in close-up before throwing it away.
Nathan asks about a photograph on Sean’s wall, and their conversation progresses to how and when Sean was infected. As he begins the story — his first time, at 16, with his math teacher — the camera traces the length of his body, down his back, and suddenly the man he’s speaking of is in the room, behind him, entering him as Sean narrates this vivid, almost haunted return to the past. It’s as though sex is a single, unitary experience, separated by decades but distinguished only by different partners in different rooms.
The camera returns to Sean’s body and Nathan reappears beneath him. They continue talking for awhile before having sex a second time: Sean straddles Nathan’s torso, grabs a condom, and puts it on Nathan behind his back. He takes a pump bottle of lube from the nightstand, which he dispenses into his hand and applies. The sequence takes 15 seconds, and is as perfunctory as removing their pants, but no less crucial to their aims. What follows is several minutes of legitimately erotic sex, Sean and Nathan breathing heavily. They change positions so that Nathan is on top of him — “Doucement, doucement,” Sean warns — and keep going.
Afterward, Sean asks whether he’s Nathan’s first “séropo” — HIV-positive person — and Nathan answers, “You’re the first to tell me.” He then narrates his own past sex story, and the scene cuts to yet another room with another man in it. His hand traces the other man’s body, feeling its two small Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions. The camera cuts back to Sean’s bed, where he asks Nathan whether he noticed the ones on his body. “No,” he says, surprised. Sean, looking pensive, says, “Good.”
This single scene contains almost more gay sex than HBO’s Looking — the two-season series and the movie combined — and more than any other major film about HIV/AIDS that yet exists. In most mainstream AIDS narratives, sex is often reduced to a guilty vehicle for infection, rather than a source of erotic, living pleasure. But BPM refuses to blush at its choices — the camera lingering on the light patch of dark hair above Sean’s ass, or the sheer volume of sex noise, from crinkling condom wrappers to lubrication and penetration to Sean and Nathan’s combined moaning. In addition to being really, really hot, BPM’s first sex scene is brashly realistic in a way gay sex scenes are rarely allowed to be. This sex scene, and the ones that follow it, are interspersed with methodical accounts of policy debates, public activism, and the clubbing that follows, amounting to a rich portrait of HIV/AIDS as a disease not of the dying, but of those fighting to survive.
BPM’s greatest strength may be its director’s proximity to its subject: Robin Campillo, born in France in 1962, was a member of ACT UP Paris in the time period in which the film takes place, and his own memories inform details of the film’s universe. (BPM shares this distinction with two of the most important AIDS narratives we have, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, both written by gay men who witnessed the crisis firsthand.) BPM premiered at Cannes, where it won the Grand Prix, and the critical reception has been glowing ever since.
The greatest challenge of AIDS activism, from the very start, was in convincing institutions — particularly the medical establishment, and city and local governments — to care enough about queer lives to address the AIDS crisis as a public health emergency, and BPM documents this fight. But it takes a distinctly different approach than big-budget, A-list pieces, among them Philadelphia and Dallas Buyers Club, in which queer characters are often presented through the point of view of the straight characters who learn to accept them. This acceptance, for straight characters as much as straight audiences, often requires them to be not too queer — the sort of sanitized, two-dimensional tokenism that includes queer people but excludes queerness, includes AIDS but excludes any discussion of its sexual transmission.
Portraying queer characters as sanitized nondeviants has been useful strategy for achieving this aim, particularly in the early years of the crisis, but implicit in these sorts of portrayals is the argument that AIDS is something that could happen to “normal” (read: “straight”) people too. This is true, of course, in that queer people are also people. But what BPM does, in a radical departure from other AIDS narratives, is unflinchingly portray queer people without erasing their queer difference — they are men and women who get drunk and sleep around, whose choices are not always either good or bad or moral, but flawed and human. BPM makes no attempt to win anyone over with the saintliness of its characters, instead representing historical queer lives that resemble contemporary queer lives — ordinary ones filled with sex and desire and anger and heartbreak. Ours are lives made entirely possible by those who came before us, many of whom did not survive.
Gay sex between men is now inextricably linked to the history of AIDS, even as HIV has, with access to the proper resources and maintenance medication, ceased to be the widespread death sentence it once was. AIDS movies are our war movies — or they have the potential to be. Campillo (whose previous projects include Eastern Boys in 2013) and his cowriter, Philippe Mangeot, were both members of ACT UP in the 1990s, in the time period in which BPM is set. It’s an unusual choice of subject in 2017, perhaps, but for the fact that queer history is so easily lost between the cracks of generational experience.
BPM portrays a unique slice of AIDS history, both in its focus on ACT UP in Paris and in its historical time period. The Normal Heart opened on 1981, when the deaths of gay men in New York and other US cities were still a mystery, and no treatments had yet been proposed. Tony Kushner’s critical masterpiece Angels in America is set in 1985, when AZT exists but is not widely available. The main character in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia seems to have no trouble obtaining an AZT prescription in 1993, while in BPM, set in the early 1990s, ACT UP activists study medical trial results and courses of treatment like pharmacologists, many forced by illness into expertise, and wonder about the future potential for vaccines.
Despite the differences in medicine and social norms between 1981, 1985, and the early 1990s, the fight remains, at its core, unchanged: AIDS activists begging for research, for funding, for education, and for the AIDS crisis to be treated as a public health crisis. But in the more than three decades since HIV/AIDS progressed from 41 cases of a “rare cancer” discovered in homosexual men in 1981 to the estimated 70 million infected to date, its representation in popular culture has changed dramatically.
The earliest major film portrayal of a person with AIDS was in Philadelphia (1993), for which Tom Hanks won Best Actor as Andrew Beckett, a Boy Scout of a lawyer who sues his law firm for wrongful termination, believing he was fired for having AIDS. He hires ambulance chaser Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) to represent him, who initially refuses out of a mixture of anti-gay hostility and fear of his disease, but is ultimately sympathetic to his situation, and wins his case. (The same year Philadelphia was released, HBO produced a docudrama based on Randy Shilts’s 1987 book And the Band Played On, to generally positive reviews.)
Casting Tom Hanks, the white and friendly star of 1988’s smash hit Big, as an AIDS patient in a feature film was a smart way to inspire mainstream sympathy for the disease’s victims — if a clean-cut everyman like Hanks could catch this disease and its stigma, it could happen to anyone. But of course, the people most affected by the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s and ‘90s were nothing like Tom Hanks. And though Philadelphia was a huge step forward in terms of gay representation in Hollywood for the time, the film has many faults. Joe Miller says “faggot” a lot (and even “pillow-biter” once), and Andrew’s longtime partner Miguel (Antonio Banderas) kisses him just once in the entire movie — a peck, seen from behind, when Andrew is first admitted to the hospital.
The only direct reference to gay sex in Philadelphia comes in a line of questioning from the defense, in reference to Andrew’s “credibility,” insinuating that he contracted HIV during one of a handful of visits to a pornographic movie theater nearly 10 years prior, when he was living with Miguel, putting him at risk as well. The risk of HIV transmission through oral sex is low, but the point of the defense’s questioning is to suggest Andrew brought this disease upon himself — and potentially his partner — and therefore does not deserve the sympathy of the court.
The idea that HIV/AIDS is anyone’s “fault” is one of the myths Philadelphia takes aim at, but were he any more sexualized, Andrew might cease to be the vehicle for moral purity the defense council and the filmmakers need him to be in order to make their case: that Andrew and other AIDS patients are victims deserving of human rights. By coding him as relatively sexless, Philadelphia presents Andrew Beckett’s ability to pass without much notice in the straight world as evidence that he deserves an equal place in it, rather than critiquing the ways the straight world enacts and enforces unequal treatment. His ability to pass is threatened once his disease — and by extension his homosexuality — is visible to his coworkers.
Philadelphia was directed by Jonathan Demme, who won a Best Director Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs (1991). The film was written by an openly gay screenwriter, Ron Nyswaner, who also wrote Freeheld (2015), about a lesbian dying of cancer who seeks to leave pension benefits to her domestic partner. Films about LGBT issues with LGBT people behind the scenes are likelier to hit their mark than those without any, but still many of these films are “for” straight people — gay men didn’t need Philadelphia to learn to see AIDS patients as human beings who shouldn’t be blamed for their suffering. The bigger the star, the more straight people the film has the potential to touch with its timely gravitas — in a phrase, Oscar bait.
A more recent piece of Oscar bait about HIV/AIDS is Dallas Buyers Club (2013), directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and cowritten by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack. Matthew McConaughey won Best Actor as Ron Woodroof, an HIV-positive rodeo cowboy who develops an illegal, for-profit stream of HIV medication from Mexico that proves more effective than the treatment he receives in a US hospital drug trial. His accomplice, who helps him find customers among the queer community in Dallas, is an HIV-positive trans woman and intravenous drug user named Rayon, played by Jared Leto, who won Best Supporting Actor for the role. The film is set in the mid-1980s, based on the true story of Ron Woodroof, but much about it is fabricated: Neither Rayon nor Woodroof’s doctor-cum-love interest Eve (Jennifer Garner) actually existed, and, though McConaughey plays a straight bigot with a heart of gold, many people who knew the real Woodroof have denounced this portrayal as inaccurate, and several claim he was bisexual.
Leto’s fey, Buffalo Bill portrayal of Rayon is a major failing of the film, as is the consistent misgendering of Rayon by Woodroof and her doctors. To McConaughey’s Woodroof, gay men afflicted with HIV are customers rather than comrades in illness, "faggots" too dumb to scheme their way to wealth and relative health, as he’s managed to do. Dallas Buyers Club makes brief, waving reference to the larger crisis, but its principal tragedies are individual — Ron’s personal war with the FDA, and Rayon’s ultimate death.
Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club and Joe Miller in Philadelphia both learn a very special lesson about difference and prejudice, as we the audience follow the bouncing ball. Both films include relationships between queer social outcasts and the people who learn to love them, won over by the goodness inherent to the soul of the oppressed minority. These storylines imply that a queer person’s goodness (as judged by a straight hero) is a prerequisite for equal treatment.
Even when the story is entirely in gay hands, as in Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart for HBO, AIDS would appear to turn its sufferers into helpless passengers in a car driven by the healthy. The Normal Heart was first produced off-Broadway in 1985, and is largely autobiographical; Larry Kramer helped found two major HIV/AIDS advocacy groups, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), featured in The Normal Heart, and ACT UP. The play takes place between 1981 and 1984, barely history in its first performances, tracing the earliest years of the crisis in New York City, from its discovery to its explanation. Kramer is a divisive but undeniably important figure in the history of gay rights, an irascible gadfly to the establishment in service of raising awareness and concern about AIDS. Kramer has been a critic of sexual liberation as an end in itself, blaming both government indifference and gay promiscuity for the continued spread of the disease.
Kramer also wrote the screenplay for the HBO adaptation, released just three years after a 2011 Broadway revival of the play. Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), forms a close relationship with Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), one of the few doctors committed to researching what at the time remains a mysterious disease. Emma’s primary directive is for men to “stop fucking,” at least until more is known about the disease, but on the heels of the post-Stonewall sexual liberation of gay New York City, this suggestion is tantamount to complete cultural erasure. The gay men of The Normal Heart risk losing their lives as well as one of the only things they consider worth living for.
Ned’s lover Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), a New York Times writer in the closet for professional reasons, contracts HIV and is almost instantly at death’s door, only heightening Ned’s already frantic rage at the inaction of civic and medical actors to properly address the crisis. As Felix’s condition worsens, Ned only gets angrier; as Ned gets angrier, his fellow GMHC members distance themselves from his seemingly insatiable rage at the world, which is now, for him, deeply personal.
Early in the film, Ruffalo and Bomer perform a memorable if overdone sex scene in Ned's apartment — Felix gazes at the ceiling and a single tear runs down his face — and later we see a few flashbacks to their first meeting in a bathhouse. But once Felix gets sick, all sexual intimacy between them is gone; they are caregiver and patient.
In The Normal Heart, AIDS functions more like a horror film than a grave historical drama; men (most of whom are white) are stricken with multiplying KS lesions in a matter of apparent days. According to accounts from the time, daily life was like a horror film in the earliest years of the crisis, friends and lovers dying suddenly of the same unexplainable disease. But in the context of Ryan Murphy’s filmed adaptation, Felix is less a character than a empty if handsome vessel for Ned’s irrepressible love, the object of his inexhaustible care; Felix represents for Ned the ultimate purpose of his life as a gay man.
A more emotionally nuanced portrait of the AIDS crisis is Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, a play in two parts that takes place between 1985 and 1986, mostly in New York City, more or less where The Normal Heart leaves off. Part one, Millennium Approaches, premiered in 1991, followed by part two, Perestroika, one year later. It debuted on Broadway in 1993, and winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award for Best Play.
In 2003, Angels was adapted into a six-part miniseries for HBO, now widely considered one of the best filmed portrayals of the AIDS crisis. In the beginning of part one, Prior Walter (played in the miniseries by Justin Kirk) contracts HIV and is left by his boyfriend Louis Ironson (Ben Shenkman), who can’t cope with Prior’s illness and instead takes up with a closeted, married Mormon Republican (Patrick Wilson) who works for Roy Cohn (Al Pacino). Much like BPM, Kushner’s text is full of flawed people making hurtful mistakes — confused, depressed, neurotic, deceitful, dying people who behave no better or worse than most people might in a crisis. It’s extremely well written, the miniseries is well cast, and it succeeds in part because it isn’t seeking to be a parable with a single moral message.
Angels in America contains less an overt fear of sex than of death, embodied by Louis’s flight from Prior’s sickness. Louis is principled and political — he flips when he finds out Joe works for Roy Cohn — and his leaving Prior is portrayed as both unforgivably chickenshit and an understandable urge he is merely coward enough to act on.
Murphy’s The Normal Heart betrays none of this doubt in Ned Weeks, whose love is too pure to ever dream of abandoning Felix — but in BPM, this conflict sneaks up on Nathan toward the end of Sean’s life; though he never falters in his commitment to care for him, the emotional weight of Sean’s disease is clear. Sean and Nathan are characters complex enough to be flawed, and the relationship between them no less so. From the foundation of The Normal Heart and Angels in America, BPM builds a complex world of people affected by disease.
BPM is the latest entry of the AIDS movie canon, and though it, too, contains a central pair of characters — Sean and Nathan, the couple in the first sex scene — but they’re just two of a dozen or so featured members of ACT UP Paris, and the collective is the true star of BPM. That group includes lesbians, straight people, parents, allies, and people both HIV-positive and -negative, with unique alliances and tensions among each faction.
Sean is in his mid-twenties, hardheaded and wiry, and one of the group’s most radical voices. His HIV-positive status has raised the personal stakes of every point of strategy and every demonstration. Nathan is slightly older than Sean, reserved but passionate, and acts as our window onto Sean. He joins ACT UP at the start of the film, a few years after its formation, but quickly involves himself in multiple ways: staging demonstrations, handing out condoms and safe-sex pamphlets, and meeting with pharmaceutical representatives and other activist groups.
Much of the film takes place in the context of weekly ACT UP meetings and demonstrations, and the narrative is at times so granular it can feel like a procedural. It’s an unusual approach to representing AIDS activism: not only the die-ins, but the committee that plans every detail beforehand.
Only certain of BPM’s protagonists are identified as HIV-positive, and usually verbally — by their own admission or in discussion in meetings, comparing T cell counts. At the opening of the film, four new ACT UP members are warned most people will assume their association with the group means they are HIV-positive, but as the film progresses, it becomes both unclear and unimportant which group members are sick and which are fighting on their behalf.
The group’s chairman, Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), is an HIV-positive gay man as close to being a centrist as anyone planning demonstrations against the government could be, the too cool, too collected counterpart to Sean’s more radical ferocity. At one point, Sean and Max (Félix Maritaud), a fellow “back row radical,” as Thibault calls them, censure another member in an internal newsletter for saying politicians who ignore the crisis should serve time in prison. Sean, chair of the prison committee, sees prison as a form of violence. A debate breaks out about the definition of justice while Thibault rolls his eyes.
Another of Sean’s allies is Sophie (Adèle Haenel), a lesbian with the still-waters frankness of someone who knows exactly what they’re doing. She plans public ACT UP demonstrations, the results of which she then presents at the weekly meeting. Sophie, Max, and Sean represent the radical left wing of ACT UP Paris, united against Thibault’s often uninspiring pragmatism. A similar tension exists among factions of the queer community even now, divided on the question of how best to enact our liberation, and to what end. In the film, the proposed slogan “J’envie que tu vives” (“I want you to live”) is criticized as too soft, a “Love wins!” in the face of a daily death toll.
Thibault and Sean conflict directly at one meeting, planning for gay pride, when Thibault suggests putting ACT UP’s HIV-positive members in wheelchairs at the front of the parade, as ACT UP members in New York City had done, to highlight the seriousness of the disease. Sean, who is still fully mobile but woozy from radiation to treat Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions on the soles of his feet, explodes at this suggestion, and accuses Thibault of playing up his and other members’ status for the sake of appealing to public sympathy. “Am I not sick enough for you?” he demands, before storming out. “Do I not look sick enough for you?” Sean’s anger is a critique of asking for pity rather than outrage, highlighting weakness rather than strength.
On a meta level, the question of sick people looking or acting sick “enough” to elicit sympathy can be read as a critique of AIDS representation in film: that if AIDS patients are out dancing, or fucking, or performatively lying in the street, who would believe they’re sick? Of course, there’s quite a lot of room between seroconversion and terminal AIDS, but few films have managed to illustrate as much life between these two poles in the way BPM has.
The second sex scene between Sean and Nathan, which takes place in Sean’s hospital room, is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the representation of HIV/AIDS onscreen. Nathan arrives just as Thibault is leaving — Sean having more or less told him to get lost — and Sean reveals his real fear for the first time in the film. He lies in bed, the picture of frail exhaustion, and stares feebly out the window. It’s the first time in the film that he seems to stop moving; even his hair, once wild and blond-streaked, flecked with fake blood hurled in political protest, has been tamed into a mild Caesar, propped up on a hospital pillow. Nathan has brought fresh clothing from the apartment they share, which Sean has been too sick to move into.
“I miss you,” Sean says, beginning to cry, and Nathan leans over to kiss him, caressing his body. His hand travels down beneath the waistband of his hospital pajamas, and they continue kissing deeply, hungrily. Nathan’s hand moves beneath the fabric, sharing the frame with several Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions visible on Sean’s torso. Sean breathes heavily and writhes in the sexual pleasure Nathan brings him from the life they used to have, a form of caregiving that acknowledges his body and their relationship as sexual, even through the pain of his disease. Sean climaxes, and we see a pool of semen on his stomach; he and Nathan laugh at the almost juvenile deviancy of messing around in a hospital room, one of them dying slowly of AIDS.
The power of this sex scene is in the sexual agency granted to a gay man dying of a sexually transmitted disease, the continued spread of which is a direct result of institutional neglect of people who have the kind of sex he has. “Sorry it had to be you,” Sean says, the two of them now reduced from the complex intimacy they once shared, Sean’s aloof self-reliance against Nathan’s almost needy warmth, to a historical archetype of gay couplehood: the sick and the strong, one dying and one watching on helplessly. In a hospital bed or in the bed they share, Sean and Nathan are fucking down the River Styx, doomed, maybe, but not yet dead.
Those dying of AIDS are often consigned, visually and in the public imagination, to wither, and simply wait for death to take them while the world fights on. Without denying the physical toll of HIV, AIDS, and their treatments, BPM defies the trope of the retreating AIDS patient; many of ACT UP Paris’s sickest members continue to attend meetings, rather than simply vanishing into ill obscurity.
Jérémie (Ariel Borenstein), a member who joined with Nathan at the beginning of the film, is a history student whose illness arrives suddenly and progresses rapidly. Over a montage of archival footage of ACT UP demonstrations, Jérémie’s voice narrates a description of the French Revolution of 1848, which ended the monarchy in France. The corpses of fallen revolutionaries were paraded through the streets of Paris, he says, and requests the same be done for him, one more corpse in a decade-long parade. We then see a dozen picket signs with Jérémie’s face on them, carried by tearful, angry ACT UP members marching slowly behind a hearse through the streets of Paris.
Even confined to the hospital, Sean has the strength and anger to tell Thibault’s glib well-wishes to fuck off, shuffling across the room to crack a window and light a cigarette. Sean’s pain and lack of mobility are horrific not simply because of how he feels, but because it keeps him from the fight, and from the people fighting alongside him. Demonstrations are followed by dance scenes in dark clubs, the sick and the healthy reveling in life in equal measure; Sean can’t attend a die-in because he’s actually dying. The Normal Heart, by contrast, features a scene at a fundraising dance for the newly founded GMHC, where all but one of the AIDS patients in attendance stand around glumly, consumed by the fact of their disease — a stark, pitiful contrast to the defiant living of BPM.
As Sean’s disease worsens, its toll is as visible in his physical presence as in Nathan’s emotional one, his usual reticence settling into stunned silence. The apartment where Sean will die was to be the home he and Nathan shared; instead, it becomes a personal, two-room hospital, staffed by his lover and his mother. After Sean’s death, it’s his ultimate separateness that is most painful to watch, his body prone and lifeless on his and Nathan’s bed while his friends, his lover, and his mother discuss funeral arrangements over coffee in an adjacent room. They arrive in ones and twos in an ad hoc wake in the middle of the night, and waste no time discussing how to carry out Sean’s final wishes — that his ashes be scattered over insurance executives. They make coffee and help Sean’s mother put away the pullout couch she’d slept on. Their internal divisions vanish in the face of their collective enemy, the death of their friends to AIDS.
The final sex scene of BPM is between Nathan and Thibault, after Sean’s death. A few hours into the wake at Sean and Nathan’s apartment, Nathan asks Thibault whether he’ll come back later, to spend the night with him. Thibault has shown interest in Nathan through much of the film, previously without reciprocation. “And we’ll fuck and everything?” Thibault asks, to which Nathan says, “Of course,” then looks almost directly into the camera, as if to ask, Why not?
Their sex scene is intercut with a scene of ACT UP members, Nathan and Thibault included, throwing fistfuls of Sean’s ashes at platters of insurers’ hors d'oeuvres. Compared to the intimacy Nathan shared with Sean, the sex he has with Thibault feels functional — a release more than an exploration, a living body to be next to. Nathan is moved to heaving sobs in the middle of the experience, sitting up and weeping in Thibault’s arms. Even having sex with someone else, he’s alone; his solitude is emotional as much as physical.
Now, Nathan is forced to live with the absence. Sean is not the lone victim of disease, and Nathan not the only one who grieves him; Sean is just one of thousands before him who have fallen away from the world they used to inhabit. His death is ultimately most painful because we witness the breadth of his life before he becomes extremely ill, and much of it looks a lot like ours. ●