Informed as it is by the stories of activists who lived their lives to the full, all the while staring death right in the face, Robin Campillo’s 120 BPM is a film full of contrasts, sometimes brimming with vibrant life, at others more detached and academic. It’s that rare historical epic set in the very recent past, a vital and informative study of the fight in ‘90s France – by a series of agencies, but focused in here on the direct action of Act Up – to have the government recognise that the AIDS epidemic was a crisis that needed addressing.
There’s a vast ensemble in 120 BPM, Campillo taking a fly on the wall approach to their debate meetings and introducing us to many different members of the Paris branch of Act Up. In these sequences, as well as those of the fake blood hurling protests by the group, there’s a very objective style that provides clarity but keeps the audience at an arm’s length. It’s only when we get to the central love story between the group’s resident showman Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) and new, HIV-negative, recruit Nathan (Arnaud Valois) that the camera gets more intimate and the visuals more stylish.
Their dynamic is touching and funny, and Campillo and his co-writer Philippe Mangeot eschew any clichéd obstacles like bigoted parents. Instead, they focus on the great tragedy of the relationship, that Sean’s HIV-positive status makes the spectre of death an everyday reality for him. Treatment is limited and often ineffectual, made worse by its viscerally nasty side effects. Surrounded by the thoughts of mortality, Campillo makes their sex scenes a spectacular display of life, frank and unembarrassed and executed with considerable panache. A nightclub turns into Sean’s bedroom without a visible cut, just one of a good many inspired moments of editing.
One of the most impressive aspects of 120 BPM is in how swiftly its nearly two and a half hour runtime seems to slip by, the whole film simply packed with energy. Performances are excellent, though the women could have been given a little more to do and the sidelining of the POC characters is a bit concerning in a true story that should be encouraging greater diversity. An incredibly graceful ending could have sunk into schmaltz, but is tinged with enough gasping sadness that this pitfall is easily surmounted.
120 BPM is sometimes a rather strange proposition, positively fizzing with life one moment and engaged in colder political debate the next. But these two distinct moods are pulled together by Sean and Nathan. Chapter leader Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) describes Sean as ‘living politics in the first person’, and it its varied approaches to its subject matter, 120 BPM does the exact same thing.