120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) *****
Starring: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adéle Haenel, Antoine Reinartz, Félix Meritaud, Ariel Borenstein, Aloïse Sauvage, Saadia Bentaïeb
Director: Robin Campillo
The AIDS Crisis has been portrayed on film from all sorts of angles. From Angels In America to The Normal Heart, Dallas Buyers Club to Philadelphia, each have chosen to focus on the individual stories of those suffering from the disease. Only And The Band Played On attempted to focus on the scale of the Crisis, both medically and politically, but only ended up falling into the trap of sacrificing character for factual accuracy. In French film 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute), which won the Grand Prix at Cannes last year, director Robin Campillo (whose last film Eastern Boys is one of the best LGBT films of the last decade) has managed what has been seemingly impossible until now; making a film about the politics of AIDS without distracting from the stories of those who died.
Nathan (Valois) is a HIV- new member of ACT UP Paris. The group, whose aim is to make non-violent but high-impact statements to raise awareness and stir-up discontent about AIDS, is run as a democratic collective. Its leader is Thibault (Reinartz), but many members take leading roles arranging numerous protests and spectacles. One of these is Sean (Biscayart), a young HIV+ man in the early stages of the disease. Angry about his infection, angry about the authorities’ inaction and angry that his time is running out, his youthful fervour attracts Nathan immediately. But as they embark on a passionate relationship that takes them through pride parades, conference invasions and storming the headquarters of pharmaceutical companies, it is only a matter of time before Sean’s health catches up with them.
Due to the early prevalence of HIV and AIDS in American cities like San Francisco and New York, it’s easy to forget that the disease decimated LGBT Communities all over the world. In fact, not only was France’s mortality rate considerably higher than its neighbours’, but it was also at the forefront of AIDS research and drug development. But in leading the pack in terms of research, it also dragged its heels in getting these treatments out to the public. It’s against this backdrop of pharmaceutical political manoeuvring that ACT UP is protesting, attempting to draw attention to the fact that while the drug corporations rest on their laurels, people are dying in their thousands. And through the depiction of the Crisis in Paris, it gives a broader political perspective on the pandemic, the blame for which has long been pinned solely on Reagan, instead of the entire worldwide political establishment; Reagan, Mitterand, Thatcher et al.
The films centres around meetings of the collective, whose rules and raked seating make it seem more like the Roman Senate than a collective of dissidents. The group is diverse, representing multifarious sexualities, genders and manners of infection. A woman and her son, a sixteen year-old haemophiliac who became HIV+ after transfusing infected blood, make for a contentious angle on the disease, as their aims and objectives differ somewhat from the LGBT community they are fighting alongside. Snappy editing cuts back and forth between the group’s anarchic activities and discussions of the political ramifications of what they are doing. In time, it becomes clear that divisions exist within the group, but with nearly all members suffering from the disease at various stages, the whole collective is a pressure-cooker waiting to explode.
Its members have nothing to lose, so they are willing to do anything they can. They can’t afford to rest, hence the film’s title, with ‘120 BPM’ referring to an active heart-rate, but is alod reflected through the film’s synth-heavy beat-driven electro soundtrack, which compliments the film’s mostly upbeat delivery, often feeling more like a heady party-movie than a story about AIDS.
Sean is probably the most volatile of the group, while Nathan is the most level-headed. Though the film does depict the inevitable dismal resolution of their relationship, which is handled with beautiful delicacy and soft respect, their journey toward this is not portrayed as a doom-and-gloom-grim-reaper-in-the-shadows story, but instead a celebration of the life that inevitably gets cut short. Nor does director Campillo shy away from depicting serodiscordant sex on screen, depicted markedly as both intimate and sexy. Sean’s HIV status does not prevent the pair from forming a relationship or exploring sexually (albeit pointedly safely) in the same way as anyone else. And the love that Nathan shows him in the later stages of their relationship is unreserved and unconditional.
The AIDS Crisis was a mass experience of individual stories, so while the film focuses on two people (with care taken to explore how Sean was infected and why Nathan would join ACT UP as a HIV- person), it also looks at the stories of several other members of the group too. In between hurling water balloons filled with fake blood at pharma CEOs, they must all deal with their own stark confrontations with mortality. And as Thibault says early on, due to being ostracised by their families and communities, the bonds they forge with each other create a tight family unit, which must deal with bereavement after bereavement. And late in the film, this is exhibited in full force in a beautiful scene in which they meet Sean’s mother (Bentaïeb) one by one.
We all know how terrible the AIDS Crisis was for the entire LGBT Community, but this film manages to create a film about AIDS that refrains from depressive navel-gazing or creating a bleak and joyless story about the destruction of an entire people. It’s a time capsule; it’s a party; it’s a protest; it’s a love story. But mostly, 120 BPM is the movie about AIDS we have all been waiting for, delivered by the hands of one of the very best directors working outside Hollywood, LGBT or otherwise.
OUT NOW IN CINEMAS.