120 BPM

Director: Robin Campillo

Starring: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Adèle Haenel, Antoine Reinartz, Arnaud Valois

Words – Jessica Piette

Robin Campillo’s 120 BPM is an intimate, highly charged portrait of the Act Up movement in early 90’s Paris. Following a group of young queer activists, the film depicts their battle with pharmaceutical giants and the state for the urgent implementation of research towards a cure for AIDS.
Written from the director’s own personal experiences, the film brilliantly balances scenes of protest and collective action with a moving love story between protagonists HIV positive Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and Act Up newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois).

Set during the height of the crisis, the film shows the extent to which deeply homophobic and prejudiced attitudes informed the lack of support for AIDS sufferers. At the time, funding for AIDS research was withheld and under prioritised, and the disease was derogatively named ‘the gay plague’, epitomising the deeply violent ideas surrounding the LBGTQIA+ community. Rather than shying away from the subject of sex, 120 BPM confronts the stigmatisation that still surrounds it. Campillo’s inclusion of three steamy, tender sex scenes between protagonists Sean and Nathan offers a refreshingly alternative and highly important perspective on gay sex, one that is still yet to be explored within mainstream contemporary cinema.

120 BPM also raises questions about the validities of conflicting forms of protest: a demonstration staged during a medical convention gets out of hand when several of the campaigners improvise, throwing fake blood over a speaker and handcuffing him. This leads to conflict within the group which is divided between members who believe that a more radical, angry approach is necessary, and others who fear that the bad press resulting from extreme acts of protest will inhibit their aims for negotiation. Yet it is these acts of guerrilla protest that force the pharmaceutical companies to listen to the group, and which eventually led to the development of effective HIV medication.

Campillo’s direction creates a vibrant, fluid portrait of the movement, cutting from scenes of protest and group meetings to the members dancing euphorically together in clubs, overwhelmed by shared moments of joyful defiance. The film’s length and pace feels perfectly considered, never letting up with its energy and sense of urgency. Underlying the youthful energy and humour is the oppressive presence of death and mourning; one young member’s health rapidly worsens until he dies, a tragic fate that awaits many of the protagonists. During a protest where the group come face to face with the employees of a pharmaceutical company who argue that they need more time to perfect their research, Sean shouts ‘We don’t have time! We are dying here!’.
120 BPM is a frank, hypnotic portrayal of an underrepresented moment in history, tied together by honest writing, seamless direction and incredible performances from the cast.