120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) – Film Review by Frank L.
Director: Robin Campillo
Writers: Robin Campillo, Philippe Mangeot (collaboration on screenplay)
Stars: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adèle Haenel
Robert Campillo, who also wrote the script, was born in 1962 and was a member of the Paris branch of ACT Up, the AIDS activist group, in the early nineties. This insider knowledge brings an authenticity to the meetings of the group almost all of whose participants are young. In considerable detail, he recreates those meetings and remarkably manages to make them lively and even amusing. The two principal conveners are Sophie (Adèle Haenel) and Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) and their mixture of energy and efficiency ensures the meetings stay more or less on track. The activists are a varied bunch drawn into some sort of unity by the contagion that is AIDS. At the back of the meetings is the hard core element who want action without thinking too much whether the consequences will be good or bad. In this group is Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) who is an exuberant, live for the moment, gay but underneath the exterior lies a steely core. He is HIV+. At the meetings he meets Nathan (Arnaud Valois), who is gay, but HIV-. The film then tells the story of their relationship but also the story of the sit-ins and demonstrations which Act Up organise. The two story lines are closely connected.
The members of ACT Up were living literally on the edge as they and their friends became ill and died. They were mostly in their twenties and early thirties. They were rightly angry at the way in which society and the powers that be, who were considerably older, sidelined their plight in face of disease and ultimate death. The underlying story is grim. But in relation to much to do with the AIDS crisis, when death was the likely end result, there is throughout Campillo’s film a sense of gallows humour – remarkably mirth, joy and love are in the ascendant.
The film lasts almost two hours and twenty minutes as the two interconnected stories unfold which is longer than most modern audiences can concentrate. However, the acting of Biscayart and Valois ignites the deep feelings which Sean and Nathan have for each other and their story becomes transcendent and keeps the film together.
The initial AIDS crisis began over a generation ago. Campillo has created a film of great strength which gives an insight into the personal and public way gay individuals responded to a disease which upended their lives and those of their friends. 120 BPM brings back into focus those dark days with elan and intelligence.