Director: Robin Campillo
Screenplay: Robin Campillo, Philippe Mangeot
Starring: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adèle Haenel, Antoine Reinartz
Runtime: 140 Minutes
Whenever tackling the subject matter of the AIDS epidemic that ravaged entire communities during the dying embers of the 20th century, there is the imperious expectation of reality to encapsulate the morose panic and desperation in the face of the disease and the freewheeling lifestyles and culture it was able to thrive in and devastate. But while Robin Campillo’s 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) does handle the burdening reality of the sickness, what he delivers here is a celebration of life, love and prosperity from those that allowed those embers to burn all the brighter.
Co-written by Campillo and drawing from his own experiences, the film centres on the work of French group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and their efforts to bring about legislation, medical research and treatment and policies surrounding the disease in the 1990s.
What it manages to encapsulate through this large cast of characters is a self-contained narrative and world that manages to sprawl itself across a spectrum of perspectives from those affected by AIDS both personally or otherwise. From newcomers and motivators to a mother joining for her haemophiliac son, it displays a passionate ire shared by individuals and humanises the statistical figures by flaunting the expression of those directly suffering, who are being denied a voice by the state and the media wishing to downplay the dread clearly gripping the streets.
The screenplay, a shared collaboration by the already esteemed Campillo and Philippe Mangeot, feels epic without the need to bloat itself up to compensate for its budgetary restrictions. The characters are densely layered and informed with a great deal of levity and humanity by its huge cast of speaking roles. From the off, it establishes the group, their position and where we are now before jumping straight into the vocal debate and fleshing out the details as it moves along.
The lives of these characters in the outside world never really enter the frame beyond titles and terms for a majority of the cast regarding their home lives or possible occupations, because their diagnosis and work with ACT UP has become so much of a reality that there really doesn’t feel a need to work its way into specifics. This is the fight for their lives, and nothing else can sway the focus from their rallying cries and survival instincts being channelled in such a way.
Their ongoing against the disease spills over into the far more tangible aspects of the French government, and the bureaucratic system of closed off environments and boardrooms where placid discussion appears to nullify momentum for the ACT UP crowd. In contrast to their own system of democracy and organisation that exists in their own spaces, from raised hands to echoed finger snaps of solidarity. They act as they do because it's the only way people will listen.
When they invade these spaces in their moments of activism, Campillo’s presentation gives a brilliantly composed sense of geometrical chaos as they storm corridors and boardrooms with balloons of fake blood, chanting cutting melodies to get their point across while refusing to resist arrest when the authorities inevitably come for them.
The moments of calm come in night-time intervals, where our heroes dance to the hypnotic rhythms of its landscape of trance music vibrating through the score. But even in these spaces, the disease rears its head, as entrancing microscopic visions of the virus seem to emerge through the dust and debris floating through the darkness and strobe lights. This airy artistry extends to visions of the Seine river turned blood red as it runs through the city like veins.
Eventually, and inevitably, the reality must sink in as to their shared predicaments. Death is a matter of notification and a regular reminder of why they fight but is most fully represented by the gradual demise of Sean Dalmazo (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and his relationship with newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois).
Nathan feels like the audience’s centre as far as delving into this world, but Sean is the films throbbing pulse. Bursting with energy and emotion, the humour he shares with the film is balanced by the empathy it imparts on his backstory and his circumstances as his slow body yields to the incurable virus and dragging his spirit with it. The final stretch is a distressing experience to see as his physical condition is disclosed, but the compassion remains and carries it through to a bittersweet epitaph that maintains the visual lifeforce of the feature preceding it.
Even when it laughs off the prospects of sentimentality, 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) moves at a clip that encapsulates the freewheeling joy of its characters as much as it wants to make prevalent points about its subject matter. It’s a rallying cry for a battle still fought under different guises, and Campillo’s prominent direction and voice feel as established as any leading auteur. It’s a memorable accomplishment with brilliant performances from an able and dominant cast of characters.