The French film BPM (Beats Per Minute), which is in theaters now and at the front of the race for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is a moving period piece based on writer-director Robin Campillo’s own experiences with the AIDS activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) in Paris in the early 90’s. With their dramatic use of language and images, ACT UP’s theatrical political actions, such as covering the obelisk in Paris with a giant, hot pink condom in 1993, was the calling card of the queer organization and its movement. But BPM, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes film festival, also shows the daily grind of the group. The film is anchored by meetings rife with conflicting ideas, snapping of fingers, and hissing; also shown are the “actions” and the deaths of some members, and in between all the ecstatic raves and unfettered sex. At the center, though, is a romance between two characters: new ACT UP member Nathan (Arnaud Valois), who is HIV-negative, and spitfire Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, above right), who is HIV-positive. We talked to the director (above, left) as well as the two stars about their lives, the 90’s, and the musicality of this deeply felt film.
Arnaud, I read that you recently retired from acting. Why?
Arnaud Valois: I was a bit disappointed with my first experiences with cinema. I stayed in the business for three or four years, waiting for the phone to call, doing very small parts. Then at age 25, I said, “Well, okay, it’s not working, let’s try something else.” So I went to Thailand and learned Thai massage in Bangkok for three months. I came back to Paris with my Thai massage diploma, and I started my own business at a studio in Paris. And at the same time, Robin’s casting director called me up and asked if I was still an actor, and I said no. And she said, “Do you want to have a try for a movie I’m preparing?” And I said, “No.”
Valois: Yeah, because it was over for me. But she explained to me the project, and all the themes. And I said, “Let’s give it a try.”
So it was specifically this project that brought you back to acting.
Valois: Yeah, Yeah.
And Nahuel, you’re from Argentina. You only became comfortable in French like six or seven years ago?
Nahuel Pérez Biscayart: I learned French six years ago.
Biscayart: Well, I had played in a French film, and the director was looking for an actor who could speak a dialect that was invented for the film. And my accent was perfect, because it was so bad, like a demi-feral boy from the woods. I couldn’t speak a word of French.
So then for the release of the film, I decided to stay in Paris for three months and I took courses every day, eight hours a day. Then it turned out that I started playing in France. But not right away! After that I did films in Italy, Spain, Germany… Different languages, different places.
Were you also acting in Italian and German?
Biscayart: Yeah. I’m quite crazy. One day I understood that I can learn a language and just play in a language.
Valois: It’s like music, you know. It’s like a melody. It’s a bit different, speaking than playing.
Biscayart: You should see my scripts. They’re like scores.
Robin, that’s something I wanted to ask you about. The film is obviously a love story, but it also reminded me of a musical. Not only the long shots of Paris from above, but also the scenes at the ACT UP meetings.
Robin Campillo: Yes, I think I’m really inspired by opera. And the first music I wanted to hear was the music of the voices. I tried to find people with very different voices, and very different ways of talking. Because it’s more colorful. I like to take foreign actors. He says he cannot speak French but he has perfect French.
Biscayart: I’m a good liar, that’s the thing.
Campillo: But his way of lying is talking perfect French. So it’s a little bit dodgy, you know?
Why I’m talking about an opera is you have all those voices altogether, like a corps. And for this collective film that was an important thing. For me, it’s like a Neapolitan opera, with all these small characters, like Monteverdi. I don’t talk much about that, but it’s the reality. It’s very musical. You have in an opera, like a Baroque opera, some kind of a ballet in the middle, which are the club scenes. It’s very cut in pieces: You have the arias, then the recitative. You have all these big scenes, and after when it narrows to the hospital room, it was like a duet. I love this change of perspective.
Maybe also like opera, you have the duet, this love story, but you know from the beginning that it’s a tragic love story.
Campillo: I wouldn’t say a love story, because that’s too big for me. A story. An adventure. Because it was very quick; the couples were together for like six months or one year. After one of them was getting ill, then the other was obliged to stay. You can call that love. But you don’t have time to consider. But because of the illness, Sean needs Nathan. And since Nathan was not there for his first boyfriend, he’s trying to get things in order, to do better. So it was very interesting to interrogate: What is a couple?
So it’s not a love story—they need things from each other.
Campillo: Of course, but I think a love story is always that. You know, we are with someone for some reasons which are not only love. And it’s not impure, it’s not something bad. It’s life. You need people.
And I wanted to say, it’s very interesting to have different types of acting. For me, Nahuel is like a Baroque actor. And it’s very hard to find good Baroque actors. And on the other hand, Arnaud is very much in the moment. So the contrast between them was very important. You have to think about these things, but not too much. For instance, in the scene where they are in the hospital and they have sex. In the script it was more rough. But you realize it’s not possible. Because Sean is tired, so Nathan is controlling himself. The caress was more like taking care of him, like a medical thing.
Like a masseuse.
Campillo: Yes. And the scene became much more interesting than it was in my mind.
Biscayart: The cast is so important. Once you have that in place you can just play with the elements. You can give them more food, less food. Stimulate them, or ask them for things. But if you have the right pieces to play with, it’s almost impossible that the result is not going to be organic.
By “more food, less food,” do you mean… fuel?
Campillo: No, inspiration. Fuel, fuel, fuel.
Valois: [Laughs.] For you, it was less food!
Biscayart: [Laughs.] Maybe I’m talking about food because I’ve got a thing with food in the shooting of the film.
How was the dramatic weight loss you had to go through in this movie?
Biscayart: It was tough. It was tough because we were filming at the same time. It was not like Dallas Buyers Club, where [Matthew McConaughey] had six months to lose weight. It was like, from now on until the end of the shooting you have to start losing weight. So I was weak. Some mornings I would just wake up and I was, like, crawling.
Valois: And sometimes you were really high as well. Really intense.
Biscayart: Yeah exactly.
Biscayart: Hmm. Yeah, after three days it’s really strange. You’re not hungry, your body’s just trying to suck carbs from the air. There’s something very weird, adrenaline. It’s a very strange state. And you’ve got energy.
Oh, like a fasting state. Kind of mystical.
Biscayart: Absolutely. But it doesn’t last because you’re like shooting 12 hours a day. If I were to be just meditating for a whole day, that would be great! But when you have to dance for like 12 hours, at a nightclub, during the day!
This takes place in 1992, a period whose fashion and music has all come back now.
Biscayart: When we met Ariel, the young guy who plays the one who dies first, I met him and it was like, “You’re from the 90’s!” He was dressed like he just came out of a gate [from there].
See the butterflies of Paris Fashion Week: