120 BPM is a film full of life, in all of its glories and despondencies. It follows the progress of the Paris chapter of the HIV/AIDS activist group ACT UP during the 1990s. The protests that the members enact are punchy and lively; they disrupt industry conferences, make impromptu trips to schools, and storm lab offices in order to agitate, educate, and demand more be done to help those who are HIV-positive. Our entry point into this life is through the eyes of new recruit Nathan (Arnaud Valois), who quickly forms a relationship with long-time member Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart).
The director, Robin Campillo, is probably best known as one of the writer’s of Laurent Cantet’s The Class (2008). Like in this previous film, it is exhilarating listening to the characters of 120 BPM speak. In the ACT UP weekly meetings, group debates often result in flared tempers, and the way the film expresses the irreconcilable differences between members is exquisite.
And although the dialogues are furiously engaging, it’s when the film displays action that it hits its stride resolutely. The scenes of protest inspire in you a frisson, as there’s a transgressive joy in watching people respond honestly and vocally to political apathy and disingenuousness. A wonderful series of dance sequences punctuate the action too; and then there are the sex scenes, which are so incredibly tender.
Campillo’s direction is wonderful, and achieves a fine balance between the film’s ambitions. It wants to be a docudrama, it wants to be a critique of political indifference, it wants to be a romantic film, and it wants to be a heartbreaking terminal illness piece. And it succeeds.
As we move into the closing section we watch as one of the main characters succumbs to the final stages of his illness, and it’s unspeakably moving (honestly, bring a hanky). But more than just inviting you to weep, the ending declares the film’s driving purpose: that the personal is the political, and to believe otherwise is foolish and ultimately dangerous. 120 BPM is a stunning piece of work.
Image: Curzon Artificial Eye