120 BPM

In BPM director Robin Campillo turns his naturalistic documentary-style technique from The Class onto a group of AIDS activists during the epidemic of the 1990s in a moving, tender and compassionate film.


by Alexa Dalby

120 BPM

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Joyful, tragic, intimate, compassionate – in 120 BPM Robin Campillo (The Class) starts with a group of French AIDS activists in the 1990s and creates a fiction, informed by his own personal experience, that feels like a documentary.

The film moves between collective and individual experience. The dynamics of the meetings of the Act-Up Paris activist group that the film focuses on shape the relationship between the characters and the stories emerge from whole group. There’s no hint at first as to which members will become the central characters, but slowly a tender and moving love story develops between two of the men, one of them one of the founders, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who is HIV+, and the other new recruit Nathan (Arnaud Valois), who is not.

The Act-Up debate scenes, fronted by Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), seem incredibly naturalistic and improvised, yet they were precisely rehearsed and scripted. AIDS had already been an epidemic for ten years at the time the film is set. Society was different then and people hardly dared to speak out about AIDS before the Act-UP activists. Many young people who were HIV positive had no future at that time, but they engaged in a collective struggle to make French society aware and to overcome resistance to get the drugs they needed, taking on the giant pharmaceutical companies and the government. Maybe as a result, that medication is now available and those HIV+ on medication now have the same life expectancy as anyone else.

AIDs was a death sentence in the ’90s and the young characters in 120 BPM are people who know they are going to die soon. The film shows the difficulty – and courage – of living a love story with someone who is sick and unlikely to recover. There are long, tender scenes of lovemaking, with superb performances from Biscayart and Valois at the different stages in their relationship that are powerful, moving and intense.

The scenes of strident activism in the offices of a pharmaceutical company, led by Sophie (Adèle Haenel) or at Gay Pride are intercut with ecstatic scenes of the same characters clubbing with atmospheric strobe lighting melting into abstract molecules in a way that seems completely in character and poignant – these are people in their twenties that want to live life, not have it taken away from them. 120 BPM is a very moving experience.

120 BPM premiered in the Official Selection at the 70th Cannes Film Festival, where it won the FIPRESCI Critics’ Prize, and is released on 6 April 2018 in the UK

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