Making its world premiere last year at Cannes and walking off with the Grand Prix, Robin Campillo’s AIDS drama 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) is a skillfully woven and at times unbearably sad portrait of activists living, to quote a line in the film, “politics in the first-person”.
120 BPM gradually moves from its initial docudrama setup, featuring a wide variety of characters, to eventually focusing on two young men, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and Nathan (Arnaud Valois). They begin to fall in love as time tragically runs out for one of them and it is in the film’s latter stages where Campillo recreates life in the raw, crafting a sequence of a man’s final hours and minutes, with nary a shred of sentimentality or Hollywood-style melodrama. In this regard, the director captured a profoundly disquieting mood akin to Maurice Pialat’s 1974 masterwork The Mouth Agape, where a mother’s slow degeneration is so intimately and realistically staged, it borders on intrusive.
Nahuel Pérez Biscayart is fantastic in what is the film’s closest thing to a lead role, though Adèle Haenel will be the most instantly recognisable among the main players. Sean is seriously ill but full of spark and fire. He’s not the type to go down without a fight. He presses the group to act more boldly and not give in to apathy and politeness. For all the righteousness and even occasional humour, neither is Campillo at all afraid to show ACT UP sometimes acting daft or threatening to ruin their cause with distasteful actions (in the opening scene they handcuff a speaker at an event and shower him in fake blood).
Yet these were desperate times and ACT UP organisations around the world had to get their message out, by hook or by crook. Causing a scene and ‘acting up’ were imperatives. And little wonder ACT UP kicked off royally, seeing themselves as at war against an uncaring society, a dithering government, secretive drugs companies and even some in their own community. In one scene, they’re asked not to go to a gay pride celebration because they put others on a downer with their visible skin cancer marks, gaunt looks and militant, scene-stealing tendencies.
At almost two and a half hours, 120 BPM does feel overly long, with its middle section the flabbiest, as the film slowly segues between Sean and Nathan’s burgeoning romance and the wider political debates and direct actions. One or two scenes of intense discussion, while engrossing and brilliantly performed, could have been omitted without causing any major subsequent narrative issues. Minor quibbles aside, Campillo’s engrossing human rights drama is top drawer foreign-language cinema and a must-see film.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn