As the holiday season approaches, those of us who cover the movie industry can be thankful the quality of the releases increases. It’s that time when we see the bulk of contenders for the various awards coveted by those who work in the business. There will be star-driven extravaganzas: would-be crowd-pleasers, optimistic franchise launches, and commercially expedient sequels. But we also get prestige projects, from daring indies to foreign Oscar entries, coming our way. Consider these two highly decorated Cannes Film Festival favorites, now reaching Bay Area screens.
‘BPM (BEATS PER MINUTE)’
The French drama BPM (Beats per Minute) takes an unflinching look at the interactions, philosophy, demonstrations, infighting, and achievements of Act Up activists in Paris during the escalating AIDS crisis in the early 1990s. Winner of this year’s Grand Prize at Cannes (and France’s submission for the 2017 Best Foreign Film Oscar), the movie is a period piece about a turbulent time when the plague was something both mysterious and scary to people, whether their lives were personally affected by it or not. We know so much more about AIDS now. Medical advances and preventive measures have helped curtail its severity and its spread in the gay community and among intravenous drug users and random people receiving tainted blood transfusions, regardless of their sexual proclivities. It may not get the headlines it used to get, but the topic continues to be relevant today insofar as those who have been infected with HIV-1 — the virus that causes AIDS — can still find themselves stigmatized, and a cure has not yet been discovered.
Directed and co-written by Robin Campillo and featuring a spot-on ensemble of actors unfamiliar to American audiences, BPM goes beyond observing the doings and civic protests of the Act Up Paris members as the epidemic takes hold; it presents a painfully graphic depiction of the devastation wrought by final-stage AIDS and the impact a patient’s suffering has on family members and on friends, especially survivors who are also infected. The title BPM could refer to the rhythms powering the dance club music that served as a soundtrack to the lives of the Act Up crew, or, more poignantly, it might call to mind the heart palpitations that quickened in intimacy and could be stilled by AIDS. This profoundly moving and disturbing film serves as an acknowledgement of the deaths that have already occurred and a reminder of the tragedy that will continue if the virus remains unchecked.
BPM is currently playing at the Embarcadero Center Cinema (1 Embarcadero Center, 415-352-0835, landmarktheatres.com).
Sliding unexpectedly from comedy to drama to social commentary, Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund’s latest feature, The Square, is a distinctive creation and another prizewinner from this year’s Cannes festival, having received the festival’s highest honor, the Palme d’Or. Although its subject and tone seem to have little of the gravitas that some previous honorees bring to bear, the movie uses a discomforting mix of satirical humor and interpersonal conflict to address issues of dissociation, class division, and bigotry in modern society — not to mention the pretensions that seem to be rampant in the art world. It does share a wry sensibility with Östlund’s 2014 movie Force Majeure, about a family upended by an avalanche while on vacation in the Alps and, in retrospect, feels like a warm-up for its more ambitious follow-up. The Square centers on the curator of a prestigious contemporary art museum in Stockholm. Danish actor Claes Bang stars as Christian the curator — a master-of-the-universe type who is used to always being in control of things until his wallet and cell phone are stolen right before the launch of a major art installation. When Christian decides to take action and get his belongings back, his life subsequently goes off the rails.
Bang manages to bring together Christian’s conflicting traits — smugness, diffidence, angst — in an organic way reflecting and fueling his trials and peccadilloes, among them his offhand treatment of his colleagues and his brusque attitude toward his affair with an American journalist played by Elisabeth Moss of TV’s Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale. Moss’s role is small yet impactful. Unfortunately, British actor Dominic West’s turn as a lionized hipster artist being interviewed at a museum event only amounts to a single amusing scene.
All caveats aside, The Square, zipping along much faster than its 142-minute length would suggest, is smart, thought-provoking, and unsettling, especially late in the movie when it focuses in on a fancy dinner for the museum’s patrons. As that occasion plays out, it underscores the dichotomy between the homeless Christian passes on the street and those well-moneyed folks whose donations finance what is essentially a shrine to art that may or may not be worth the adulation.
Östlund has given The Square a cool veneer (not unlike Christian’s public persona as curator) that covers a quiet tension beneath the surface. Eventually, the tension breaks through in a bizarre resolution befitting the madness of these strange days where we find ourselves — and lingering long after the movie ends.
The Square opens Nov. 10 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema (1 Embarcadero Center, 415-352-0835, landmarktheatres.com).