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Review: BPM (Beats Per Minute)

Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute) is at its most intimate when observing the exchange of war stories.

3.0

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BPM (Beats Per Minute)
Photo: The Orchard

The U.S. title, BPM (Beats Per Minute), of Robin Campillo’s latest effort stresses the film’s main thematic track involving the sense of movement that ACT UP Paris’s members feel they need to sustain in order to see another day. This energy is political, taking the form of protests against pharmaceutical companies whose research, drug trials, even words—assurances that they’re willing to negotiate with the sick—move at a speed that’s a slap in the face to those who have only months, maybe days, to live. But it’s also sexual, a resistance to the ugliness of a disease’s assault on the body, as in a singularly and simultaneously heartbreaking and erotic scene that sees Nathan (Arnaud Valois) beating off his hospitalized lover, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who’s in the final stages of AIDS. For a moment after, as Nathan wipes the ejaculate from Sean’s body and then kisses him, it’s as if Sean will live forever.

Often throughout BPM, Campillo will cut from an ACT UP meeting or a moment of protest to a dance floor that seems less real—say, an actual bar or club somewhere in Le Marais—than imagined. The first time this occurs, it’s almost imperceptible how the filmmaker transitions from the dust that’s kicked up into the air by the dancers’ feet and molecules inside a human body that either react to the HIV virus’s infection. It seems at once inappropriate and perfect to call this a special effect, because on the one hand this isn’t an effect that’s been achieved through the expensive technical wizardry of a Hollywood tent pole, and on the other it’s an impeccably succinct expression of men and women trying to reclaim their bodies, to literally effect change through their special relationship to dance music.

This effect, though, comes to feel redundant by the third or fourth time that it’s been deployed in BPM. Campillo is determined to convey how the body seeks agency, to reimagine itself, on the dance floor. But it’s an idea whose power is progressively dulled every time we’re returned to this space, where the tightness with which the moving bodies are framed and the anonymous dance beats on the soundtrack come to feel less evocative of the intimacy that the film’s characters crave than of budgetary restrictions.

Compositionally, many of the film’s exterior scenes, from marches to shock demonstrations, are similarly constricted, which has the unintended effect of diminishing the scope of what the characters resist: the seeming totality of a city turning its back on the undesirable. And, indeed, it’s precisely the jolt of recognition, specificity, and expansiveness that defines a powerful sequence that transitions from scenes of protest and subsequent dancing, all set to Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy,” that most iconic of songs about traditional culture’s rejection of the homosexual, and an overhead shot of the Seine’s waters running red, almost as a punishment, with the blood of AIDS victims.

In between raids, in between the meetings with ACT UP members and those who hold the keys to their possible survival, BPM is at its most intimate when observing the exchange of war stories. Shortly after Sean kisses Nathan at the site of a protest—a school they break into in order to teach students the sex education that their teachers can’t—they become lovers. Nathan is so smitten by Sean in this moment that he doesn’t notice the teenage boy milling about nearby, so clearly hungry for a pamphlet and to be near someone else like him but too afraid of reaching out. We never see this young man again, yet one understands the possibility of him becoming a Nathan, who avoided being infected by HIV because he fearfully abstained from sex for five years, or a Sean, who contracted the disease at 16 from his very first sexual encounter. When Nathan and Sean share these stories with one another, Valois and Biscayart pitch-perfectly communicate how these men, at least in private, are hard-headed and unsentimental about their lives.

Maybe the reason that 120 Beats Per Minute, the exact English-language translation of the film’s French title, has a better ring to it is because that “120” emphasizes that Campillo’s thematic fixations aren’t as single-minded as his aesthetic ones. For many of the film’s characters, with their constant concern about viral loads and T-cell counts, to live with HIV and AIDS is to be constantly playing a numbers game. (Some musicologists have suggested that people are biologically driven to prefer a tempo of around 120 beats per minute, which is the average for most charting pop hits.)

That number, though, also points to BPM’s triumph as a study of the logistics of successful activism. Much of the film is spent indoors, obsessively steeped in the debate that ACT UP Paris’s members have about the ethical, practical, and logistical implications of their actions. These debates are never less than impassioned, and the anger with which words are sometimes volleyed about here is always understood to come not from a place of hate, but from a place of fear—as in Sean, during a discussion about whether the group should put their hospitalized friends on the frontlines of their protests, screaming to know why his quickly deteriorating body isn’t a satisfactory enough prop.

That the sounds of finger-snapping and hissing throughout these meetings are so intuitively understood as substitutes for the more disruptive clangor of applause and boos, respectively, is just one of the ways that Campillo and co-screenwriter Philippe Mangeot convey how the rhetoric of AIDS activism has evolved in the short years since ACT UP’s founding in New York. That politesse is also the subject of the film and by the end understood as a public voice’s self-preserving weapon that becomes complicated to put down in private spaces, namely the place for mourning fallen comrades in arms.

After Sean’s death, his friends come to his mother’s (Saadia Bentaïeb) apartment to pay their respects. Almost everyone who enters the space is disarmed by how at ease the woman seems in the way she offers them coffee, even food, until they remember the social contract between them as members of a group that’s familiar with death and devoted to the belief that Sean, like so many others before him, left for a reason. The way that grief transitions, ardently and even humorously, to talk of how to politicize Sean’s body feels dance-like even before we return to the club, and the audience itself is forced to remember that the beat, like the war against inaction, goes on.

Cast: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adèle Haenel, Antoine Reinartz, Félix Maritaud, Ariel Borenstein, Aloïse Sauvage, Simon Bourgade, Médhi Touré, Simon Guélat, Coralie Russier, Catherine Vinatier, Théophile Ray, Jérôme Clément-Wilz, Jean-François Auguste, Saadia Bentaieb Director: Robin Campillo Screenwriter: Robin Campillo, Philippe Mangeot Distributor: The Orchard Running Time: 144 min Rating: NR Year: 2017 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: The Changeover Enjoyably Pinballs Between Disparate Fantasy Styles

If, in the end, the film’s narrative fails to cohere, the journey getting there is at least enjoyably swift-paced.

2.5

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The Changeover
Photo: Vertical Entertainment

Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie’s The Changeover is an unusual and mostly enjoyable hybrid of disparate fantasy styles. Based on the 1984 young adult novel by Margaret Mahy, the film suggests a superhero origin story, developing a convoluted internal mythology involving a coven of benevolent witches, an evil vampiric “larva” who sucks the youthful vitality out of young children, and a “sensitive” schoolgirl, Laura (Erana James), who receives psychic premonitions of future harm. When the larva, Carmody (Timothy Spall), picks Laura’s kid brother (Benji Purchase) as his next victim, it’s up to her to save him.

It can be a little difficult to keep the story’s mythos straight, particularly when, in its final third, the film launches into a lengthy Inception-style action sequence that takes place entirely in a dream realm. By the time the credits roll, it’s not entirely clear what just happened, and exactly why. McKenzie’s script has to resort to voiceover narration—present only in the very beginning and end of the film—to fill in some of the gaps, and even then, not every piece of the puzzle seems to fit together. This makes for an ultimately somewhat confusing and unsatisfying viewing experience, at least for anyone who’s never read Mahy’s supernatural teen romance. But sometimes it’s better to feel a little lost than to know too much: The film confidently powers ahead without feeling the need, as so many fantasy stories do, to halt the momentum every reel or two to offer a dull exposition dump.

As directors, Harcourt and McKenzie eschew the soporific melancholia of teen fantasy films like Twilight in favor of a lithe, angular visual approach—including impressionistic close-ups and skittering, almost Michael Mann-ish handheld shots—that grounds the story’s supernatural goings-on in a sense of reality without draining them of their fantastical charm. Spall strikes a similarly appealing balance between plausibility and outright camp, digging into his villainous role with teeth-gnashing glee. Pitched somewhere between a deranged hobo and Mr. Dark from Something Wicked This Way Comes, his performance provides a fun yet menacing foil to James’s haunted, obsessive turn as Laura.

Even when the specific details of the film’s plot may seem silly or confused, Laura remains credible and compelling. It’s this carefully managed equilibrium between the inherent preposterousness of its mystical milieu and the convincing emotional reality of Laura’s journey that ultimately makes The Changeover, for all its muddled mythos, a lively and engaging excursion into an unusually naturalistic world of magic.

Cast: Timothy Spall, Melanie Lynskey, Lucy Lawless, Nicholas Galitzine, Erana James, Kate Harcourt, Benji Purchase, Ella Edward, Thomasin McKenzie, Claire Van Beek Director: Miranda Harcourt, Stuart McKenzie Screenwriter: Stuart McKenzie Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 95 min Buy: Book

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Film

Review: 1900 Obliterates the Barriers Between Story and History

Bernardo Bertolucci’s film is a living, fluid organism that spans the distances between several poles of extremity.

3.5

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1900
Photo: Paramount Pictures

A handful of iconic films are inseparable from a single, equally iconic review. Whether it was a pan, a rave, or somewhere in the middle, is immaterial: The piece of writing and the film are, by chance rather than design, now joined at the hip in the minds of every well-read viewer that encounters the film from that day forward. There’s John Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie, which inspired Graham Greene to write a provocative contemplation of wee Shirley Temple’s “adult” appeal. (A consequent lawsuit by 20th Century Fox further inspired Greene to flee to Mexico.) 1900 was Italian maestro Bernardo Bertolucci’s first film after Last Tango in Paris, the runaway international success of which can at least partly be attributed to a goalpost-shifting, all-stops-out rave by New Yorker critic Pauline Kael.

1900 didn’t necessarily send Kael into comparable flights of exaltation, but her review is almost as much a landmark as the one for Last Tango in Paris, in its way. Before getting to the business of weighing and measuring the qualities and liabilities of Bertolucci’s epic, a multi-generational mural that seeks to envelop the whole of the century up to that point, Kael circled the pool before swimming, meditating on the very idea of the director’s—any director’s—grandest gesture, the epic that danced on the knife edge between brilliant and insane, noble and foolish. It wasn’t a “think piece,” in today’s parlance, not the way Kael transmitted levies and decrees from her high judicial seat. Rather, it sought to address as directly as possible the tendency for auteurs of a certain stripe to render unto mortal audiences a monument of—and to—the cinema, a true gesamtkunstwerk in motion-picture form.

The gesamtkunstwerk, generally attributed (not exclusively) to Richard Wagner, has a special resonance with the cinema. While in the 19th century a “total art work” would combine or hybridize elements of several different media, the movies seemed to be one-stop shopping for visionaries with similar dreams of amalgamation and “total”-ness, pitched at the grandest scale, and encompassing the largest themes. Directors like D.W. Griffith and Abel Gance, as well as Hollywood moguls like David O. Selznick, attempted such Herculean exertions, but a film like 1900 is unimaginable during earlier decades. It requires the picture-window magnitude of widescreen cinema (without the lateral restrictions of the Cinemascope frame). It requires the new open-mindedness of art-house moviegoers in a post-Midnight Cowboy, post-Last Tango in Paris era, given the graphic nature of some scenes—some of which, without getting too specific, you’ll never, ever, be able to un-see. There’s the relentlessly mobile camera, requiring the most up-to-date production technology, and which seems to prowl and sweep at the same time. And there’s the melting pot of American and European stars, emblematic of an international cinema scene preordained by Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa and Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town.

Similar barriers between story and history are obliterated. 1900, of course, doesn’t draw lines around the world’s 20th century so much as limit the breadth and depth of the whole world to the story of modern Italy, from the death of Verdi in 1901 to the innumerable planes of struggle following WWII. This isn’t the kind of film that adheres to any tradition of screenwriting discipline; resolutely episodic, even its episodes (which are countless) are often amorphous, flowing and breathing into what happened before, and what comes after.

The heads of the principal characters are drunk on tempestuous cocktails of primal urges, political convictions, and sexual impulses. No corner of Italian society seems to escape Bertolucci’s attention, but, if anything, it’s most frequently concerned with class warfare, setting up Robert De Niro’s Alfredo Berlinghieri and Gérard Depardieu’s Olmo Dalco as respective totems of the landowner and peasant class, locked in eternal conflict, right to the end of the line—and to the present moment. Bertolucci’s concept of the epic is to fashion a living, fluid organism that spans the distances between several poles of extremity: ancient and modern, agony and ecstasy, life and theater, rich and poor. Foremost, perhaps, is Bertolucci’s trademark ability to weave intimate spaces into infinitely larger tapestries. If it fails, as some critics have noted—beginning with Kael—to live up to its ambition to stand as the greatest of all films, it is perhaps only because the century is itself profoundly, humanly disappointing.

Cast: Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, Burt Lancaster, Dominique Sanda, Sterling Hayden, Donald Sutherland, Francesca Bertini, Laura Betti, Werner Bruhns, Stefania Casini, Anna Henkel, Ellen Schwiers, Alida Valli, Romolo Valli, Bianca Magliacca, Giacomo Rizzo, Pippo Campanini Director: Bernardo Bertolucci Screenwriter: Franco Arcalli, Giuseppe Bertolucci, Bernardo Bertolucci Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 317 min Rating: NR Year: 1976 Buy: Video

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actress

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress.

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Glenn Close
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress for having given a performance that, while not your, um, favourite nominated one, is still deserving of an Oscar victory lap. Now, if only others felt the same. Very early on in the awards season, there was already a sense that this award could become a career-achievement coronation for the six-time losing Glenn Close—and that people were going to have a problem squaring that with the fact that her Oscar would be tied to a film perceived to be a piffle. That’s not an inaccurate perception, but it’s difficult to remember a time when critics have used that as an excuse to not do their homework.

In short, have you seen The Wife? Indeed, until the awards-media system’s attention shifted full time into covering AMPAS’s A Series of Unfortunate Oscar Decisions, it seemed as if every day brought us a new article by some pundit about the Oscar race in which it strangely sounded as if the The Wife was still a blind spot for the writer. Which is shame, because Close gives good face throughout the film. Certainly, few Oscar-nominated films this year are as absurd as The Wife, but I’ll do battle with anyone who thinks Close is getting by on her legend alone. Close’s triumph is recognizing The Wife’s inherent ludicrousness and elevating it, and without condescension, with a kabuki-like verve that seeks to speak to the experiences of all women who’ve been oppressed by their men. It’s a turn worthy of Norma Desmond.

Today, the most reliable Oscar narrative is the overdue performer. And if you take stock in that narrative, then you’ll understand why I texted Eric, my fellow Oscar guru, the following on the morning of November 29: “I think Close is going to Still Alice at the Oscars.” After that morning, when the New York Film Critics Circle officially kick-started the Oscar season (and gave their award for best actress to Regina Hall in Support the Girls), no actress ran the table with the critics and guilds, but most of the cards that matter did fall into place for Close, and much as they did for Julianne Moore ahead of her winning the Oscar for Still Alice.

This was a done deal when Close won the Golden Globe, received a standing ovation, and gave the night’s most impassioned speech, immediately after which Eric conceded that my instincts had been right. Of course, that was no doubt easy for him to admit given that, by that point, the oxygen had already seeped out of A Star Is Born’s awards campaign, leaving only Olivia Colman in Close’s way. Colman has worked the campaign trail in spectacular ways, giving speeches that have been every bit as droll as this, but in the end, she doesn’t have the SAG, and as bold and subversive as her performance certainly is, it isn’t sufficiently big enough to convince enough AMPAS members that Close should continue waiting for Oscar.

Will Win: Glenn Close, The Wife

Could Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

Should Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

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