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Valois’s performance as an activist in early-’90s Paris helps the film capture the era
Céline Nieszawer

Movies about political activists tend to put the politics first and the human second. Not so with French writer-director Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute). Set in early-1990s Paris, the film follows a group of ACT UP members as they launch AIDS-awareness demonstrations, squabble during meetings and let off steam on the dance floor, all in the service of keeping themselves, and anyone else at risk, alive.

Campillo, who co-wrote the script with AIDS activist and educator Philippe Mangeot, captures the mood of an era with a specificity that’s by turns somber and joyous. The love story between guarded HIV-negative activist Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and the more politically aggressive–and HIV-positive–Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) is the story’s strongest magnet. A tender and captivating sex scene between the two suggests that falling in love requires more than just the engagement of mind, heart and body: each partner also brings baggage. But the total burden is lighter when two people shoulder it together. This is how you love when your life depends on it.

This appears in the October 30, 2017 issue of TIME.

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