My first day at the Chicago International Film Festival, held at the AMC River East 21 downtown where regularly scheduled film screenings and selections from some of the most elite film festivals around the world mingle together, featured two consciously political films from French directors.
Few films attack humanitarian crises with the fervor and ferocity of “BPM (Beats Per Minute),” which follows a group of AIDS activists in Paris in the early 1990s. The film, directed by Robin Campillo (“Eastern Boys”), borrows equally from the social consciousness of contemporary European filmmakers and from the large-scope examinations of communities by American filmmakers like Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson.
At its center are various members of the Paris branch of ACT UP, an organization started in New York to bring attention to HIV/AIDS victims with demonstrations led by positive and negative members alike. Their lives intersect in weekly meetings, in the subway, at demonstrations, and, in the film’s most tender moments, in bedrooms. The film is bookended by two acts of protest (with a third that anchors the first half) — the first, in the film’s first shots, leads into a sort of post-mortem to discern whether the protest, which takes several turns, was a success, in an all-too-rare cinematic exploration of the efficacy of certain protest methods; the powerful ending largely serves as catharsis, both for the participants and the audience, and its very power reveals how much we care about these characters, drawn not with lazy exhibition but with vibrantly colored actions.
Though at 144 minutes the film’s patience combined with its heavy subject matter may turn some off, but this is, ultimately, a movie about flamboyant 20-somethings in the Love Capital of the World. It’s almost engineered to be endlessly fascinating. With a foot-tapping score by Arnaud Rebotini of the band Black Strobe, drawn from the Eurobeat heard in discothèques at the time, Campillo’s fascination with both the never-ending debate over how best to achieve social goals and the effervescent rave culture at the time make “BPM” a worthy watch.
“The Workshop,” the latest film from French director Laurent Cantet (“The Class”), also confronts contemporary political discussions, but lacks the nuance and assuredness of “BPM.” The film, co-written by Cantet and Campillo (the two have collaborated on a number of films together), focuses on a writing workshop in a small town in southern France. There, a diverse group of about eight young adults collaborate on writing a thriller, guided by their moderately successful novelist instructor (Marina Foïs, “Irréprochable”).
The film starts by following one of the students, Antoine (first-timer Matthieu Lucci), who spends his days swimming and working out. We’re initially drawn to Antoine — the film follows him after all — but soon we begin to be repelled. It starts with suggesting an Arab or black villain in their thriller novel, and then a casual invocation of the 2015 terrorist attacks at the Bataclan in Paris, which he weaponizes against an Arab classmate. We then see he regularly views videos by figures in the French equivalent of the “alt-right.”
From there, the film shifts in its viewpoint to the instructor, who not so subtly confronts Antoine for his views. At the workshop, the students dance around the subject, but Antoine seems ready to play: he’s willing to talk about the genre’s fascination with killing, despite what he perceives to be authors’ lack of emotional involvement. Cantet’s film wades into the murky waters of an important political conversation with a mildly interesting vantage point, splashes some water around and gets out before actually saying anything of import.
Still, the film’s visceral thrills are undeniable. Antoine is too fascinating a character to forget, and his racially tinged diatribes that echo contemporary battles over PC culture on college campuses provide some degree of necessary input in an ever-important conversation. But at the film’s conclusion, nothing has been changed, and more importantly, nothing has been said. So what’s the point in listening?