Two period dramas – one about a world renown author, the other about AIDS activists in the 80s – step into the ring. Which film will come out of top?
Let’s bitch it out…
I wasn’t sure what to expect going into Mary Shelley, Saudi director Haifaa Al Mansour’s biopic of the famed author of Frankenstein. I don’t know anything about her as a person, having only read parts of her most famous work, and as a result the screening became a bit of a scavenger hunt for elements of her life that would influence the novel.
As a biopic, Shelley is quite selective, focusing on a small three year window during which Mary Wollstonecraft (Elle Fanning) meets, falls in love with and causes a scandal by becoming the mistress of Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), famous poet and married man. Despite the short time span, the screenplay hopscotches through time quite a bit, touching on one significant moment before immediately abandoning it to jump ahead. The result is a cliffnotes vibe that the finished film unfortunately never quite overcomes.
I’ve read some reviews that suggest Fanning isn’t a good fit for the role, but I think she came off fine. Booth is a reasonable as a famous poet / womanizer, though his Edward Cullen make-up and hair styling is unnecessarily distracting. Thankfully just when the film sort of collapses near the end of the second act Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) turns up to chew the scenery like an Anne Rice vampire. He’s a breath of fresh air in a film that’s pleasant, but non-essential. Perfect for airplane viewing (if that’s not too damning).
BPM (Beats Per Minute)
Full confession: BPM was one of my most anticipated films heading into TIFF17. I’d seen the rave reviews coming out of Cannes and it immediately catapulted to the top of my list.
I’m happy to report that the film doesn’t disappoint. Alternately a historical dive into 80s AIDS activism and an intimate love story, BPM swings for the fences and mostly hits a home run, although at 143 minutes, there’s a touch of bloat. It’s the story of the Paris branch of Act Up!, the real life activist group that struggled to bring attention to legislation, sex education, advocacy and treatment when the AIDS epidemic was at its height. It’s also the tender love story of somewhat inexperienced hunky Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and twinky militant Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) – one negative, the other poz and angry as hell about it.
Robin Campillo does an amazing job as both writer and director. The demonstrations are filmed like an action film, with quick cuts and a pulsating score. He deftly balances the critical discourse and contentious debate in the Act Up! meetings as easily as he films two incredibly erotic (for different reasons) sex scenes, which feel authentic for their humour, discussion and sensuality (Sidebar: you may want to warn grandma that this may be the most explicit depiction of gay sex since Shortbus; that way she’ll be ready for the cumshot).
My favourite sequences are the dance parties that occur after each demonstration. Shot on what looks like an undressed black set, the actors blend and mix together in and out of focus, the dust in the air eventually forming into the infected cells that are killing so many of them. When a critical member of the cause eventually succumbs to the illness, Campillo shoots the next demonstration in the same style as the dance sequences, blurring the lines between celebration and activism.
BPM is a film that’s full of joy, anger, passion and grief. It’s a reminder that despite the gains that have been made in the fight for acceptance and equality, there was a time, not so long ago, when being gay wasn’t just unacceptable, it was a potential death sentence. That’s powerful stuff.