Director: Robin Campillo
Stars: Arnaud Valois, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Antoine Reinartz
We live in a stirring time of protest, but our protests are predominantly ideological ones. Against Trump. Against Brexit. Still, such imagery has become commonplace on the news, on our Twitter feeds, in the streets where we live and participate. Robin Campillo’s astonishing 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) is a film of protests, of activism, but activism of another kind. Its ideological, yes, but also something more insistent; its survivalist.
Set in Paris in the early 90’s, the film focuses on the inner works of ACT UP; a notable group striving to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic. A large majority of the members are HIV positive (or “poz” for short), using non-violent demonstration to pressure pharmaceutical companies to stop dragging their heels on potentially life altering new treatments. We join them in one of many heated debates over how best to achieve their goals.
There are many such scenes scattered throughout the film in which the principal cast members tackle the fundamentals of their varying philosophies in a claustrophobic lecture room. These spirited discussions are masterclasses in themselves; never for a moment rendered uninteresting despite the confines of shooting. The impassioned performances inspire an impassioned response. But Campillo’s film is more than just theory and activist rhetoric.
At the centre of it all is 26 year-old Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). His T4 count is plummeting, and so this battle is one that thrums with urgency for him. At this time in France the AIDS epidemic was at a record high, with numbers twice that of the UK or Germany; an average of 6,000 new cases per year. Sean lives the cause because the remainder of his life appears increasingly to have been stripped away from him. In the process he clashes with frequent chairman Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) and, unexpectedly, finds love with ‘negative’ ACT UP member Nathan (Arnaud Valois).
120 BPM buzzes, especially in its early stretches, with the urgency and melancholy of not having enough time. The activists are mostly in their twenties, and in a strange way the film comes to both celebrate and eulogise youth. Infected or not, dying or not, the people before us all feel the inadequacy of time. Club culture persists as an expression of vitality and by extension another act of defiance.
During one such scene located on a dance floor, Campillo has the gyrating bodies become particles in the air. We all mix and intermingle. This imagery takes on a more pronounced meaning as these particles reveal themselves as molecules, and we’ve transitioned from the macro to the micro; the dancers themselves now an extreme close-up of the virus at work in the body.
A similar transition occurs much later, and through this technique the virus haunts the film like a phantom; its apparition appearing at irregular intervals. It stops 120 BPM from becoming abstract from its subject. The enemy is there before us; an alien in a haunted house.
Sean and Nathan’s connection is the film’s emotional linchpin, though Campillo plays it delicately. Two remarkable scenes find each partner making naked confessions. The first quite literally, as Sean opens up about deeply personal issues during emotive lovemaking; the second – in stark contrast – finds Nathan reciprocating by explaining what brought him to ACT UP in the middle of one of their meetings. Campillo hushes the extraneous sounds as Valois quietly blows the scene away. A moment of intense vulnerability in a sea of silenced voices.
That all voices present are likely to be silenced sooner rather than later presses harder on the film during its final act as Sean’s condition deteriorates. Indeed, his labored breathing sets a new, slower tempo for this necessarily more downbeat and contemplative section of the movie. Yet still, as things become more and more dire, Campillo shows deft restraint, allowing the actors to conjure honest and heartfelt emotions without directing our responses. This relative darkness is a well-judged counterpoint to the spiky joie de vivre expressed so frequently through the film’s first half, moving the film from the theoretical to the deeply personal. To put it more simply, 120 BPM is beautifully heartbreaking without resorting to sentiment or cheap shortcuts.
During one of the group’s passionate debates, the proposed slogan “I want you to live” is ridiculed for its softness, but the whole film is imbued with a heady desire to keep going, to keep being, to keep loving. AIDS may have come to define the actions of these individuals (when asked what he does, Sean replies, “I’m poz, that’s all. It’s that simple”), but their emotional connections to one another are less prosaic.
120 BPM is playing at only a few select cinemas around the UK, which is a shame as this is such an extraordinarily accomplished picture. The setting suggests it might bisect with Mia Hansen-Løve’s well-received Eden in a Venn diagram of modern French cinema with a yen for the 90’s, but it also shares a sensibility with the films of Céline Sciamma (Tomboy, Girlhood) in that it approaches a minority group with assured evenness and honesty (in the process showing up the caricatures of American counterparts like Dallas Buyers Club). Campillo watches his subjects from a cool remove, yet allows us to become readily invested in their lives.
If you can’t easily get to a cinema to see this one, it is available to view now via Curzon Home Cinema online. While, as ever, a theatre is the optimal place to experience great filmmaking, this substitute may have to suffice if you’re eager to see one of the year’s very best pictures.