Most breakups are awkward. Ours was a little more awkward than most.
After two years together, when we ended our relationship, broke our lease and moved to separate places, Christian was healthy. In a matter of weeks, though, he was in the hospital with the kinds of infections that ambushed many young gay men back in the 1980s.
Thrush, cryptococcosis, but luckily not the disfiguring spots of Kaposi’s sarcoma. That would have really pissed him off. Christian was beautiful, and he was vain. He was an actor. He’d only recently learned he was HIV positive. Until then, I don’t recall him even getting so much as a cold. It was as if his body took the test results not just as a diagnosis but as a directive. He got so sick, so fast.
Pneumonia was the first big body slam. When the hospital released him, I agreed to go to his new apartment early every morning, for a week, for his follow-up treatment. We were exes, but he was still in the closet — about his illness, anyway.
He was usually asleep when I got there. I’d nudge him awake, hang a new bag of Pentamidine on his IV stand and insert the needle into the port that was lodged in the crook of his arm. Then we’d sit for a couple of polite, quiet hours while the medicine — which did not save his life — dripped into his veins. Those mornings were weirdly intimate for two men who had just decided to part. In a way, we were closer than we had ever been.
I was struck by those memories while watching BPM (Beats Per Minute), the French film that won the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It’s a movie that’s sometimes as difficult as it is important to watch.
Director Robin Campillo throws us directly into the vital, argumentative, tedious atmosphere of the weekly meetings held every Tuesday evening by ACT UP Paris in the early 1990s. (I was a member of ACT UP Atlanta myself in the late 1980s, but I’ll get back to that later.)
ACT UP, which stands for “AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power,” was a radical, grass-roots movement of pissed off, often sick and dying gay men, lesbians and allies of various sexual identities and HIV statuses who took to the streets, invaded institutions like the CDC and made a lot of angry, desperate noise to bring attention to an epidemic that was being ignored by the Ronald Reagan White House. The raw, reckless yet simultaneously disciplined work of the movement led to significant advances in research and medications for people with HIV. But a lot of memorial quilts got stitched before that happened.
In BPM, gangly, handsome Nathan (Arnaud Valois) is a newcomer to the activist group. And he’s a bit of an outlier. HIV-negative, he’s fondly teased by some of the others. “Too bad,” says one of the guys. “You’re so dishy.” But viral status doesn’t keep Nathan away from Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), one of the loudest members of the ACT UP chapter, with one of the lowest T4 cell counts. If all of us are on borrowed time, he can see his days are drawing especially short.
In the heady aftermath of one big ACT UP protest, Sean glances out the window of a train as it crosses a shimmering, twilit river. “There are times when I see how AIDS has changed my life,” he says. “It’s as if I lived things more intensely. As if I saw the world differently. As if it had more colors, more noise, more life.”
Then he snorts with laughter and says, Just kidding.
Of course, the movie isn’t kidding. Yet at the same time, it takes a clear-eyed approach and avoids easy sentiment. Everything here is in dreadful, sweet balance: people die, and people dance. After their latest provocations, the ACT UP members always celebrate by piling into a club and dancing out their victory, their rage, their fear. As in Paris, so it was in Atlanta.
I’m glad that BPM documents the importance not only of HIV-negative ACT UP members like Nathan, but more so the importance of women (straight or lesbian) to the movement. The movie captures the giddy/scary energy of ACT UP’s protests, spattering balloons full of fake blood on the walls of a big pharm corporate office, or sudden confrontations with a tipped-off police force. “That didn’t last long,” says Sophie (Adèle Haenel, whom the camera loves) as she and her comrades are packed into a police wagon before they can even reach the sidewalk for their latest demonstration.
The movie recreates the exhilarating-yet-exhausting feeling of those years. And it summons up the mundane awfulness of an early demise. When one character dies, the movie documents death’s indifference, its remorselessness, as it leaves behind the stiff husk of a thing that barely resembles the man it once was. BPM nails the frequent ritual of those years, when ACT UP members would convene following a friend’s death, a self-selected family ready day or night to repeat the necessary procedures: share coffee, food, grief and comfort, and begin the funeral arrangements.
The movie is not transformative. It’s not uplifting. Frankly, it’s a long, sometimes difficult thing to get through. But man, if you lived through those years? It feels like a nod of recognition, a kiss on the cheek of solidarity. We lost so many promising souls. Can you imagine what they might have accomplished?
During my year or so of involvement with ACT UP Atlanta, my ex, Christian, was still alive but moved back to Indiana to live with his family. He was such a kind and dutiful and conflicted Midwestern boy. Even if ACT UP’s yelling, jagged street theater and arrests could have saved or even extended his life, I don’t think he ever would have really approved. He didn’t like loud.
Today he would be 61. He was 33 when he died. Not only did he never see the millennium, he never even saw 1990. I miss him, and I miss the me that I was back then. Maybe you miss some people too. Maybe you should see this movie.
On November 24, there’s another terrific film opening: God’s Own Country. It’s also gay-themed, but that’s just coincidental. It was screened earlier this fall by Out On Film, and here’s what I wrote at the time:
It’s a British film with such thick accents, we need English subtitles. That’s the only downside. Folks are calling this a Yorkshire Brokeback Mountain, and it is, only (good news) without the gut-punch of that movie’s ending.
Josh O’Connor plays Johnny, son of a sheep farmer so oppressed by his dad (Ian Hart), he almost seems like a feral animal. (He’s a little like the dominated boy of the Taviani brothers’ great Padre Padrone). His hostility remains intact with the arrival of a Romanian hired hand, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), whom he calls a gypsy.
Things change, though, with some muddy sex out in the sheep fields.
The movie is less about sexual awakening than Gheorghe’s civilizing influence on Johnny. But it’s also sometimes hot and violent . . . um, in a good way.
BPM (Beats Per Minute). With Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adèle Haenel, Antoine Reinartz. Directed by Robin Campillo. In French with subtitles. Unrated. 140 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
God’s Own Country. (Opening November 24.) With Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, Ian Hart, Gemma Jones. Written and directed by Francis Lee. Unrated. 104 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.