120 BPM: a must-see film as intense and uncompromising as its subject

Before the critical and French box office success of his new film 120BPM (120 Battements par Minute, 2017), Robin Campillo was not exactly a big name in French cinema. But unfairly so. Through his long-standing collaboration with director Laurent Cantet, who he met at film school IDHEC in the eighties, Campillo has been involved for over 20 years in some major films as a writer and/or editor, such as Time Out (L’Emploi du Temps, 2001), Who killed Bambi? (Qui a tué Bambi?, 2003) The Class (Entre les Murs, 2008) and many others. Campillo also directed Eastern Boys (2013), a gay-themed movie and The Returned (Les Revenants, 2004), which was then adapted into a successful TV show (which he is credited for as a writer) and even got a remake in the US, and was an interesting take on zombie shows with dead people mysteriously coming back to their ordinary lives in a small town in the French Alps. This year Campillo’s great talent has finally been recognised and revealed to the public with a film that earned him the Grand Prix du Jury at the Cannes Festival.

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120BPM explores with great realism the activities of Act Up Paris in the early 1990s. Act Up is an advocacy group which started in New York to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic, encourage prevention projects and elicit action from researchers, scientists, pharmaceutical companies, government and politicians alike to find effective treatment and support for people with AIDS, sometimes through hard-hitting stunts. In the early 1990s the AIDS epidemic was growing rapidly among marginalised groups such as gay men, drug-addicts, prostitutes and prisoners, and little was done by governments to inform and prevent the fast expansion of the disease. Antiretroviral treatment programmes were in their early days and thousands of people were dying of the disease in silence.

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At a time of worrying relapse in the Western world to unsafe sexual practices on the assumption that AIDS is now a “treatable” disease (and if a few cases of full recovery have been reported it is still a minority) while in Sub-Saharan Africa the epidemic continues to grow, 120 BPM acts an important reminder that AIDS is a terrible virus that has taken the lives of millions of young people in the 80s and 90s and continues to kill every day.

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In his film Robillo takes the time to show how an advocacy group like Act Up works, how it organises its actions, how ideas are fiercely debated and decisions are made, how opinions often diverge, how something so sensitive and life-changing as being diagnosed with the disease and looking out for new symptoms of the illness creeping in every day can prompt contradictory actions. It conveys the activists’ incredible energy, passion and determination to make their voice heard, to leave no stone unturned, to give their all even if the disease is making them weaker and weaker and slowly eating them up. The long weekly team meetings are filmed extensively. No details are spared about the rules of debate (the viewer even gets an induction to the group at the beginning of the film), the speeches and discussions are not shortened, the action happens in real time. Robillo “locks up” the viewer in the room and wants them to experience the painstaking work, the exhaustion, the frustration, but also the resourcefulness, the energy and the passion of these young activists who all pledge to pass themselves off as “séropo” (“poz”) regardless of their background and HIV status for the cause.

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The working scenes are intentionally long and intense, and sometimes disorientating. But they are also interspersed with some energetic protest scenes which made Act Up notoriously famous. And through yearly events like Gaypride and International AIDS Day on 1st December, and the visible changes in the streets of Paris, we get a sense of the timing passing. In fact, the story is very much structured around the seasons of the year. The spring is full of energy and passion, it’s the beginning of a new engagement with Act Up for some; summer is full of sensuality and desire, it is the start of a beautiful love story; autumn sees some dark clouds appearing and finally winter brings with it the most heart-breaking moments of the story, which again don’t spare the viewer in their systematic, real-time representation of challenging times in life, although they also show the best of human beings too.

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True, the scenario and directing of 120BPM are excellent but what really carries the film is its amazing actors.  Argentinian actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart and French revelation Arnaud Valois play the leading roles of Sean, the outspoken radical activist, and Nathan, the shy HIV-negative newbie, proving again that opposites always end up attracting.  With its denim outfits, bleached hair and house music tracks, the film instantly transports us into the early 90s while avoiding period prop overload. Supporting roles, including Adèle Haenel’s Sophie and Antoine Reinartz’s Thibault, Act Up’s directors, are also excellent as they manage to express the contradictions of young people split between their beliefs, their gut feelings, their ideals, the reality of big business, the tragedies they experience and their intense sexual desires.

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Campillo has created a unique film that is neither a biopic nor a docu-drama but gives us a real insight into how an organisation like Act Up grew into a leading advocacy group and uses that as the backdrop to a moving love story which explores every single human emotion from passionate love to fear, anxiety and happiness. A film as intense and uncompromising as its subject. A film that will leave no one feeling indifferent.

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