Robin Campillo is most well known as the writer on the tv series The Returned, and for directing the interesting if underwhelming Eastern Boys. There are thematic and visual connections between these projects and his latest film, 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute), but with regards to quality the latter is a gargantuan step up. 120 BPM is a powerful, moving portrayal of the work of ACT UP Paris, an AIDS advocacy group which in the 1990s challenged the French government and various pharmaceutical companies on their non-action over a rapidly growing epidemic. The film presents the struggle of the AIDS activists at the time as that of a group who are at war. From the storming of labs, painting the walls and windows red with fake blood, to the public vigils for their fallen friends, it is clear that ACT UP Paris are fighting a battle for their lives, with the real belief that they are capable of changing their society for the better.
The film itself makes a direct comparison between the events it depicts and the French Revolution of 1848, and there is certainly a similarity in the notion that there is a group within society who are suffering but who are being ignored. The battle is wearying though, and some of the film’s most impactful scenes are when the activists go to nightclubs to drink, dance and forget the pain of their condition. Their dances mimic, and at times morph into and out of, their protests as though they are wrestling with a desire to escape from a life that was forced upon them while simultaneously expressing a willingness, even an eagerness, to put their all into a fight that they see as their duty.
At the centre of the conflict is a generational struggle. The group which the film follows is largely composed of young men, although there are a number of notable women and older individuals involved, including Sophie (Adèle Haenel), one the group’s most outspoken and determined leaders. Their opponents on the other hand, whether they be government officials, representatives of big pharma or ordinary civilians, are largely older men and woman wearing corporate suits that suggest their concerns lie more with protecting their own reputations and positions of power than with the fears and troubles of an ostracised minority.
Much of the film is set in the lecture hall in which the group meets to discuss their plans. The meetings are organised in such as a way as to ensure that everyone has their time to speak but that they move through the points as systematically and quickly as possible—there are regular complaints that disagreements are taking up too much time or that they are focussed on the ring issues—and while it initially appears trite, it becomes clear that this conduct is driven by a collective fear that many of the individuals in the room do not have the luxury of long and full lives and that as a result, time is precious. As a result, discussions are often frayed and the anger and frustration at the slow progress being made boils over frequently.
At the centre of this overarching story is the relationship between Nathan (Arnaud Valois), one of the newest members of the group, and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), one of the founders. The most transfixing moments in the film are when the camera focuses in on the two young men sitting in one of the back rows of the lecture hall and all of a sudden the rest of the room and the other people around them melt away, leaving Nathan and Sean alone to talk, to mourn for the past and desire for the future. Such startling moments of stillness and beauty punctuate an otherwise often riotous cacophony of sound and colour and it is Campillo’s deft touch in balancing the visceral moments of drama with the devastating quietness that surrounds the inevitable personal tragedies that befall the young group of activists that makes 120 BPM such a exhilarating and moving film.