120 Beats per Minute, the new film from Moroccan-born director Robin Campillo (The Class, Eastern Boys) focusses on the plight of AIDS activists operating in Paris in the early 1990s. It does so with ferocious energy and anger, an electric rage intended to kick down your front door and shake you out of your sleep. It’s the loud protests and fiery debates at the heart of BPM which push the film into uncharted territory in the context of LGBT+ cinema.
What’s fascinating about Campillo is that Act Up, the group at the focus of the picture, is an organisation of which he used to be a member. Even without knowing this fact, it’s clear to see that his depiction of the atmosphere, tone and culture of Act Up is his own very personal truth. Nowhere in the film is it revealed that the subject matter is of personal importance to its director, but to include it would be an unnecessary addition. The focus from Campillo and his team here is to ensure that honesty doesn’t just shine through – it illuminates every frame and gives restless life to its story. None of the characters feel archetypal, and albeit that there isn’t much backstory given to extraneous members of the group, they all feel like unique individuals with personalities which attribute to the greater collective of the movement itself. It’s a stunning achievement to embody the spirit of activism so richly that it becomes wholly immersive.
When Nathan (a sloppy grinned and charming Arnaud Valois) begins to attend Act Up’s weekly meetings, his strong, masculine features and sparkling eyes capture the attention of long-time member Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, the film’s resoundingly brightest star). While Sean, scrawny, sparky and intelligent, is relied on as the source of energy for many in the group, the psychological struggle which is wrapped up with his condition is seen to drastically and progressively damage the way he perceives the world. He’s an outsider in a collection of outsiders, viewing situations almost from above, his eyes dark, hollow and sad. Biscayart is phenomenal here in his portrayal of a man searching for someone to view him as an individual rather than a vessel for his illness.
Intrigued by the aloof mysterious nature of Nathan and what he represents, Sean enters a tentative relationship with him which is both limited by and bound with his condition. They talk candidly about their experience with the disease and in a particularly harrowing scene, who’s to blame in the case of infection; both Nathan and Sean agree that the state, for its part in the deliberate non education of those susceptible to it, burden a lot of the responsibility for the outbreak. Nathan is HIV negative, and Sean can’t immediately see why he’d join their cause without suffering personally. When Nathan retells the story behind his own tangential relationship with the disease, the heartbroken expression on Sean’s face is all the information the film needs to give us on how devastating it can be to have AIDS take the life of a loved one.
More urgent then, is the acquisition of hope. In this case, hope means progress; stronger antiretroviral therapy, and better preventative information. The blunt rejection the organisation receives when trying to approach schools to talk about preventative measures and give out contraception serves as a stark reminder of the kind of hostility exhibited to the LGBT+ movement at the time which suppressed meaningful, educational dialogue.
One of the small frustrations of 120 BPM is that it doesn’t spend enough time elaborating this theme; in a two-and-a-half-hour runtime, it feels as though the partition of acts could have been given more thought. There are a number of scenes which feel overly long and too based in reality; characters would engage in conversation which flow in a way such as to be believable, without really serving the story.
Therefore, it’s at the moments of intense charge that the cinematography and screenplay feel at their most fused together. In the scenes set in the sweaty nightclubs Nathan and his friends spend their nights dancing in, the editing almost always cuts away to evocative imagery which suggests that for all of them, the cause they’re fighting for is universal and ties them all together. The lecture hall where the group gather to discuss tactical procedure is suitably grey and bleak, yet it’s where some of the film’s fieriest confrontation takes place. An undercurrent theme to all of their protests is the colour red; a crimson river flowing down the Seine, the synthetic blood bags exploding on crystal white glass in an immaculate pharma lab. The messiness of the dark liquid dripping down a window pane comes to represent something we come to associate with the message of 120 BPM, which is that when faced with clinical, blissful, corporate ignorance, resisting it requires a defiant and clumsy exhibition of humanity.
By Maisie McGregor