120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) (120 battements par minute)
France (2017) Dir. Robin Campillo
AIDS. It is remarkable how these four letters have the power to send shockwaves through the body some 30 plus years since this disease become a global pandemic. This film takes us back to the early 1990’s when ignorance about AIDS and HIV was still at a high and how sufferers themselves sought to educate the world about it.
With AIDS claiming numerous victims across the world, the direct action advocacy group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was formed in 1987. The French chapter of ACT UP is disappointed with their government’s meandering progress in supporting HIV/AIDS sufferers, so they up their game with audacious public protests.
The fight doesn’t stop there, and the group take their message to schools and on Gay Pride rallies but it seems people are still tied to the idea that only gay people can contract AIDS through sex, whilst gays themselves want to distance themselves from ACT UP. But with any rebellious group, some are finding it hard to work within the guidelines of the agreed philosophies and practices and arguments break out among the ranks.
120 BPM (the average heart rate) is about much more than this but the basic framework of the story revolves around the action ACT UP takes in making their voice heard and in galvanising the French government to do more in tackling AIDS. This might make it sound like a 142 minutes of preaching, which it isn’t but it is an eye-opening essay on the importance of education when dealing with serious illnesses.
Director Robin Campillo was himself a member of ACT UP in the 90’s as was co-writer Philippe Mangeot, so they both know whereof they speak, giving the script a credibility other films might lack. Whether this extends to the gay relationships of the subplots isn’t known, and while this serves as something of a distraction in bringing ACT UP’s legacy to wider attention, it is congruent to the main story.
So, this is your gay sex warning and there are few explicit-ish scenes of this nature if this make uncomfortable viewing for you. Being frank, I don’t think the scenes were needed – or the frantic dance club scenes – given the film’s length, but I assume Campillo felt it necessary to convey the strength and depth of the relationship in question, although this was obvious without it.
The couple in question are shy newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and outgoing militant ACT UP founder member Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). Like most members of ACT UP, Sean has AIDS but he is the latter stages, explaining his forthright passion for extreme action by the group as a fight against time. This is shared by many others in the ranks while chairman Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) and Sophie (Adèle Haenel) are understanding they favour a less aggressive form of protest.
Assuming the role of the antagonist is pharmaceutical company Melton Pharm, who has been working on AIDS treatments but is dragging their heels in releasing the results of their trials. Like most corporate entities, they are heavy with the obfuscation which angers the group especially as they are more knowledgeable about AIDS and HIV than Melton Pharm are!
When discussing ACT UP’s mission it needs to be reinforced that they are not simply activists out to cause trouble, although this is part of their MO anyway. The film opens with a botched protest at a pharmaceutical conference where the speaker was covered in fake blood and handcuffed to the stage, followed by a visit to Melton Pharm’s HQ, again using fake blood to draw attention to their complaints, this time incurring police arrest.
Because they are so knowledgeable about AIDS, and believing the French government is censoring the media in reporting the facts, ACT UP also held public rallies, handing out leaflets on practicing safe sex and free condoms, whilst explaining the many ways AIDS can be contracted. That their effort is rebuffed by one girl derisively claiming she won’t catch AIDS as she’s not gay, speaks volumes about why ACT UP was so necessary.
The makeup of the group members is diverse enough to reinforce what they are trying to inculcate about how indiscriminate AIDS is. One lad is only 16, joined at the meetings by his mother, some are drug users, but not everyone is gay. However, they are all running out of time and with one fatality early on, the last act deals with Sean’s declining health and Nathan’s strength in looking after him until the end.
Mileage may vary but the film is at its strongest when focusing on the group’s campaigns and protests, often making them seem harsh and borderline militant in their actions, yet the cause is one of great import and they are not being listened to. There is a slight repetitious pattern of group meeting, protest, group meeting, protest which will test some patience, but the pacing is fairly brisk even if the dialogue is verbose.
With the focus shifting to Sean, the pacing slows down but the emotional drama is amped to eleven, not mawkishly so, refraining from overloading the scenes with syrupy music and floods of tears. This is pure, raw, and intimate, topped by Nahuel Pérez Biscayart’s committed performance in taking Sean from a raging flame to a dull ember.
Indeed the entire cast are on form with their naturalistic turns in response to Campillo’s documentary style direction (until the final act), which only gets arty during the nightclub scenes. Again, they felt unnecessary and indulgent within the context a story that doesn’t need any supplementary gloss to get its point across.
Unquestionably we have come a long way since the 90’s in terms of understanding and in combating AIDS but it continues to claim victims to this day. 120 BPM is a hard-hitting, revealing drama with invaluable educational value, in need of some trimming to prevent diluting its impact.