Our youth are fair game in the culture wars. The bright-faced young actors portraying 1990s AIDS activists in the new French film BPM (Beats Per Minute) have one particular thing in common with the nubile actresses in the new 1960s-set American indie film Novitiate: Both movies represent cultural history transmogrified into modern archetypes as young people learn about new social phenomena. BPM is about a generation’s response to the deadly AIDS crisis and Novitiate shows women contemplating spiritual choice while reacting to religious orthodoxy after the changes presented by Vatican II.
BPM is a near-great film about hope and suffering that gives sex its proper rank in the scale of human relations, while Novitiate is a scandalous, shameless anti-Catholic freak show.
By now, serious moviegoers and readers of this column should know that contemporary non-American filmmakers from André Téchiné to Julian Hernandez are adept at portraying subcultural experience—especially gay issues—as part of the panoply of life. So BPM, unsurprisingly, dares an epic humanizing format, similar to such classics as Nashville, Intolerance, and the lesser known Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train and Circuit. Director Robin Campillo has learned from those examples, applying their concern with human desire to topical political unrest.
But maybe it was too much to hope that an American indie director, Maggie Betts making her feature debut, would explore the yearning of a girl, Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), who wants to become a nun, without it turning into clichés about post-WWII American repression and modish skepticism about Catholic faith in which the sallow-faced nuns seem human only in their misery — when they resort to displaying their femininity (nascent feminism?) through unhappy hysterics.
By casting actors as if they were mirrors of modern college students, rather than people of a specific social period, both movies attempt a sly means of persuasion. They let the naïve modern filmgoer take past history as their own story. This is very much related to the current fashion of using and identifying with the “progressive” past in order to justify modern styles of protest. In this process, gays are always tormented, blacks are always downtrodden, women are always oppressed, and all now-privileged social groups are victims.
It’s a relief that Campillo depicts his AIDS activists as energetic, passionate youths who argue with each other without being in political lockstep. But it is depressing — though canny — that Betts shows her young novitiates as if depicting lambs being brought to the slaughter (albeit lambs akin to a gaggle of young geese who squawk and whine in boisterous cliques). BPM has a rush and vigor befitting its title (which comes from the musical beats of gay disco clubs as well as the normal human heart rate). Novitiate is as dark and solemn as a dirge. (The end credits inform us that 90,000 nuns left the church after Vatican II.)
Radicalization can happen through different methods, and though movies might seem to be the most benign, their impact is worth serious thought. Campillo celebrates joie de vivre, brother- and sisterhood (a secular wake is the film’s emotional high point). Betts may not be Santayana or Gloria Steinem, but she knows her market supports radicalization; thus, her pessimistic film won a Sundance Film Festival prize. It is, essentially, a new kind of Calling Card film.
Calling Card films are career starters; usually race-themed movies made by young white directors to get attention from liberal Hollywood and the media. African-American Betts has shrewdly made the first Calling Card movie that bypasses black pathos but exploits a white-themed story. Still appealing to liberal agnosticism, Betts queers the convent’s commitment to love and sacrifice (plus self-punishment and abnegation) through her heroine’s question “Some people wonder why you would give your life to God.”
It’s clear from Betts’s facile sympathy with the whims of naïve youth that Novitiate is intended to undermine the Church as repressive and outdated. Betts doesn’t get close to the complicated inspiration expressed by former Hollywood actress-turned-abbess Mother Dolores Hart in the remarkable documentary God Is the Bigger Elvis. Instead, Betts emphasizes Cathleen’s lesbian stirrings and the panic of Mother Superior (Melissa Leo), an always-angry martinet. (Admittedly, Leo shows Meryl Streep how the movie Doubt should have been done, but her prostrate contortions on the altar would be too much even for an admitted horror film.) Yet, I thank Leo for her facial expressions of extreme disgust. When she berates one of the brats for “tiresome spiritual wretchedness,” it characterizes this move succinctly.
Both BPM and Novitiate pretend to be counterculture when they actually are what Paul Joseph Watson called “dominant culture” films. They indoctrinate through the deception of progressive ideology. BPM is best because it is the most honestly humane. Campillo’s conceit of depicting historic radicalism with a modern-day sheen at least raises awareness of opposition. (It is a relief that he never resorts to the hateful Church-bashing of the 2012 AIDS doc How to Survive a Plague, which Michael Moore endorsed.) Campillo shows that surviving a modern plague is not an opportunity for self-congratulation but largely a matter of human civility. Avoiding the philosophical complexity of divine grace, he instead shows one HIV-positive gay activist telling another, “I know we don’t like each other, but we’re friends.” It’s a new ring on camaraderie.
BPM is good enough to rate comparison with Jean-Luc Godard’s 1968 La Chinoise, a critique of Sixties Communist/Maoist fervor — and the best-yet film made about radicalized youth (newly released on KINO Blu-Ray). A scene where Campillo’s activists water plants on a balcony evokes Godard’s quintessential portrait of radical idealism that went on to question their naïveté, seeing vandalism and terrorism as misguided actions. This contrasts Novitiate’s skeptical view of religious commitment and discipline. Betts films a line-up of spoiled girls waiting to be shorn as if depicting death row. A brief moment of mysticism has a crucifix fall to the floor, which Cathleen retrieves in her sensual nakedness; it’s a Sundance version of Andres Serrano’s infamous, blasphemous art stunt.
The changes that Vatican II brought about in Catholic practice take a backseat to Betts’s retro emphasis on Cathleen’s sexual confusion — her need for “comfort . . . more than God can give.” ISIS recruiting tactics could not be more duplicitous, and that’s how Novitiate goes about its specious radicalizing. But BPM reminds viewers of their fraternity and sorority before it offers memento mori.