“Smalltown Boy,” a 1984 single from the British synth-pop outfit Bronski Beat, is featured prominently in Robin Campillo’s film Beats Per Minute. The song’s lyrics describe a “lonely boy” who’s “pushed and kicked around” in his provincial hometown, and eventually leaves with “everything you own in a little black case” to find “the love that you need.” The process of escaping a small-minded suburb to find excitement and salvation in the anything-goes bustle of the big city is a common fantasy among young people who feel misunderstood, but the song was conceived and contextualized during the ’80s as a clarion call to the LGBTQ sets in specific.
Accordingly, Campillo’s film drops the needle on “Smalltown Boy” as our cast of characters — a ragtag band of French activists working with the Parisian chapter of ACT UP to combat HIV and AIDS in the ‘90s — enjoy a night of dancing at a discotheque. They’ve just come from a long day of protesting against the French pharmaceutical industry’s heel-dragging on a cure, and they need a release after bearing the terrible weight of a plague. As this makeshift family of runaways and castaways tears it up in slow motion, celebrating themselves and a tomorrow anything but guaranteed, they cherish a brief interlude of being carefree during a serious time.
But the camera slowly racks focus to the microscopic, following dust as it floats through the air before fading into a CGI representation of HIV attacking cells. Emotional, elegantly shot and freighted with historical significance, it’s the sort of moment that wins Oscars. Or so conventional industry wisdom suggested, up until very recently.
Back in January, Oscar nomination day was understandably occupied by chatter about Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig’s overnight ascension to Hollywood’s uppermost echelon of success, or whether Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has the juice to go all the way, leaving one perplexing omission largely forgotten. To every extent that a film can be a shoo-in for the best foreign language film statuette, Beats Per Minute should’ve had it in the bag. Peruse the recent lineup of winners, and trends not too dissimilar from those dictating the bigger-ticket awards start to emerge, all of which the film commonly known as BPM dutifully adheres to.
For one, judging by the track record of winners and losers, voters favor films working in a visual language familiar to them; European releases have dominated year in and year out, while the distinct styles and rhythms of, say, Asian cinema have landed the continent less than a dozen wins since the category’s inception in 1947. Moreover, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loves an issue picture. While the film was certainly great enough to win on its own merit, Asghar Farhadi’s drama The Salesman enjoyed a boost in publicity in 2017 when the director boycotted the awards ceremony over President Donald Trump’s travel ban. The previous year supported Kate Winslet’s tongue-in-cheek theory that Holocaust movies are awards factories, as the brutalizing Sonderkommando drama Son of Saul took the gold.
So, what happened? BPM gives voters everything they’re understood to want and then some. Deeply and immediately accessible, the film structures itself around its political significance, showing the hard nitty-gritty of how AIDS protesters organized themselves and moved to action. BPM has the requisite pedigree, too, having earned the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix (that’s second place — Palme d’Or winner The Square made the Oscar cut) after a cavalcade of glowing notices from attending press. All the same, Campillo and BPM were iced out of both the Oscars and the Golden Globes.
If the foreign language film category really is the Olympics of Suffering its reputation makes it out to be, perhaps BPM didn’t have sufficient timeliness behind its politicking. They’ve been rounded-up expertly elsewhere, but this year’s crop of foreign nominees all have distinctly modern concerns working in their favor. Lebanon’s The Insult and Russia’s Loveless both focus on national turmoils, the former compacting the conflict between Lebanon and Palestine into a heated person-to-person feud while the latter shakes its head in sorrow at the state-sponsored abuses in Russia.
The odds-on favorite, Chile’s A Fantastic Woman, explores the challenges that an unkind world deals trans woman when her lover passes away. (Star and trans actress Daniela Vega will present at the ceremony, marking the first time the ceremony will welcome an openly trans presenter.)
Sweden’s The Square doesn’t have the grave sense of urgency, but it may be the most uniquely “2018” of the bunch, focusing on such matters of the now as clickbait and the online obsession with optics over all else. Which leaves Hungary’s On Body and Soul, an odd magical-realist fable that took the Golden Bear top prize at Berlin’s prestigious film festival. With an odd, possibly alienating story set in a slaughterhouse and mixed reviews, its inclusion perplexes — until the Netflix logo runs before the opening credits. The streaming giant acquired the rights to the film, and the industry’s new power player has proven skilled at muscling their way into awards consideration.
Perhaps BPM was made a victim of its own milieu. The AIDS epidemic took 2013’s mediocre Dallas Buyers Club all the way to Hollywood’s big night, but only because it really tells the story of a homophobic man coming to grips with his own prejudices — an eternal struggle. A film like BPM firmly situates itself in the ’90s of Philadelphia, when the challenge was basic survival for those testing positive more than winning over the minds of bigots. It’s a bitterly cynical thought, but maybe BPM would have had a more successful go if it had included a straight character that learned a valuable lesson? But of course, that’d be a weaker film.
BPM’s defiant unwillingness to congratulate its hetero viewers of their open-mindedness is precisely what makes it great — instead of the people in the seats, it’s about the people onscreen, dancing as if their lives literally depend on it.