Beat­ing hearts

In his award-win­ning new film ‘120 BPM’, Robin Campillo pays trib­ute to the lives and the sac­ri­fices of those be­hind the 1980s Aids ac­tivism group ACT UP

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‘120 BPM’ direc­tor Robert Campillo

Robin Campillo was a 20-year-old film stu­dent when the first im­ages of the Aids cri­sis started to ap­pear in French news­pa­pers. These pic­tures in­cluded the fa­mous be­fore-and-af­ter shots of Ken Ram­sauer, who, in 1983, be­came the first per­son with Aids to be the sub­ject of an Amer­i­can net­work news spe­cial. Ram­sauer’s shock­ing ap­pear­ance is re­vis­ited, more than three decades later, in 120 BPM, Campillo’s award-win­ning drama­ti­sa­tion of Act Up Paris, the Aids-ac­tivist col­lec­tive of which he was a mem­ber in the early 1990s.

“His name was Kenny,” one of the film’s char­ac­ters ex­plains to his lover. “He looked like a freak. I’d never seen a gay cou­ple in a mag­a­zine be­fore. Ex­cept it was to say ho­mo­sex­u­als were go­ing to die.”

“This was a guy who wanted to show peo­ple what some­one with HIV and Aids looked like,” says Campillo. “But in the end he was ex­ploited by the me­dia like he was a mon­ster. He wanted to warn peo­ple and they used those im­ages. That was aw­ful. I saw those pic­tures when I was 21 and I was so afraid at that time.”

That early hys­te­ria around the virus dra­mat­i­cally im­pacted upon the young Campillo. Hav­ing com­pleted his stud­ies at the French film school IDHEC in Paris (since re­named La Fémis) in 1986, Campillo took a job as a video ed­i­tor for the cur­rent-af­fairs desk of French state TV chan­nel France 3. He first en­coun­tered Act Up while edit­ing news seg­ments about the or­gan­i­sa­tion.

“I was 20 in 1982 when it started,” says the Moroc­can-born French film­maker. “I was re­ally afraid of what was go­ing on be­cause I was a young gay guy, read­ing all these ar­ti­cles say­ing that most of the gay men were go­ing to die from this dis­ease, and all these hor­ri­ble sto­ries. For 10 years, I was not liv­ing my own life. I was so afraid of what was go­ing on that I stopped hav­ing sex. I was over­pro­tect­ing. It was be­cause of the death of my first boyfriend – my first love,

I was re­ally afraid of what was go­ing on be­cause I was a young gay guy, read­ing all these ar­ti­cles say­ing that most of the gay men were go­ing to die from this dis­ease, and all these hor­ri­ble sto­ries. For 10 years I was not liv­ing my own life. I was so afraid of what was go­ing on that I stopped hav­ing sex

I should say – I be­came an­gry. It was a prob­lem for me that gays were tar­geted by the press, say­ing that we were all go­ing to die. And at the same time, there was no com­mu­ni­ca­tion about the oth­ers, warn­ing drug users, pros­ti­tutes, other groups. So I came to Act Up out of anger.”

Act Up orig­i­nated as a New York-based coali­tion that, dur­ing the 1980s, took on Ron­ald Rea­gan and Big Pharma. Their pi­o­neer­ing cam­paign style, as ex­pertly chron­i­cled by David France’s 2012 doc­u­men­tary How to Sur­vive a Plague, led to the cre­ation of dozens of Amer­i­can and in­ter­na­tional chap­ters.

As 120 BPM opens, Act Up Paris is a dy­namic or­gan­i­sa­tion com­mit­ted to the same at­ten­tion-grab­bing ac­tivism as its US pro­gen­i­tor. Their ex­u­ber­ant ac­tivism sees wa­ter bal­loons filled with fake blood, colour­ful street pa­rades, and of­fice in­va­sions. Add an erot­i­cally charged ro­mance be­tween vet­eran rad­i­cal Sean (Nahuel Perez Bis­ca­yart) and HIV-neg­a­tive new­comer Nathan, and Ar­naud Re­bo­tini’s thump­ing house sound­track, and 120 BPM be­comes the most ex­hil­a­rat­ing, dy­namic film ever made about a gen­er­a­tional tragedy.


Peo­ple were dy­ing, says the 55-year-old film­maker, best known for his col­lab­o­ra­tions with the direc­tor Lau­rent Can­tet (in­clud­ing Time Out, Head­ing South and the Palme d’Or-win­ning The Class). But that tragedy was often ob­scured by a sense of ju­bi­la­tion.

“If we wanted to sur­vive, it was not just be­cause we wanted a job and a life,” says Campillo. “It’s be­cause we were very good at hav­ing fun, at par­ty­ing, at hav­ing sex, at club­bing, at all these things that were im­por­tant to us. It was so un­fair that we were dy­ing so young. And while it was not true that all peo­ple were lis­ten­ing to house mu­sic at that mo­ment, for most of us, it was the sound­track to that time. It is an ur­gent, emo­tional, nos­tal­gic mu­sic for us. Di­dier Lestrade, the first pres­i­dent of Act Up Paris, was a mu­sic critic and a house DJ.”

In 2000 Lestrade, along with sev­eral other scene DJs, founded the a monthly KABP dance party, an event that would con­tinue for four years and would leave a last­ing mark on France’s in­flu­en­tial elec­tro mu­sic scene.

“At the end, the mu­sic has evolved so it’s like a gospel,” says Campillo. “I asked the ac­tors not to look at each other when they are danc­ing. It’s like when you are in the dark­ness in the cin­ema. You are in a crowd but you are on your own. I love this idea, this con­tra­dic­tion be­tween a col­lec­tive ac­tion, and at the same time, be­ing alone. Cin­e­mas and clubs very close in this kind of ex­pe­ri­ence.”

To date, there have been sev­eral well-re­garded doc­u­men­tary films that deal with the Aids cri­sis, in­clud­ing How to Sur­vive a Plague (2012), United in Anger: A His­tory of ACT UP (2012) and Larry Kramer in Love and Anger (2015).

The wildly am­bi­tious 120 BPM is often closer in tone and scope to these films than other fic­tional fea­tures (es­pe­cially Hol­ly­wood’s award-friendly Philadel­phia and The Dal­las Buy­ers’ Club) that have touched on the same sub­ject mat­ter.

While the film piv­ots around a cen­tral ro­mance, its Alt­manesque sprawl of char­ac­ters en­sures that Act Up is the real pro­tag­o­nist, rather than any one per­son. The or­gan­i­sa­tion is con­stantly, vi­brantly in flux, as the peren­ni­ally ex­as­per­ated co­or­di­na­tor So­phie (Adèle Haenel) seeks to con­tain the mil­i­tants down the back, overly ea­ger ag­i­ta­tors, and a con­tentious leader (Antoine Reinartz).

Often, in the best pos­si­ble sense, it can feel like a more ex­cit­ing vari­a­tion on doc­u­men­tar­ian Fred Wise­man’s in­sti­tu­tional stud­ies.

“I just tried to cre­ate a struc­ture and per­spec­tive that, as you say, was in­sti­tu­tional,” nods Campillo. “It is peo­ple in a room with a theatre and no win­dows ex­chang­ing ideas and forg­ing a new po­lit­i­cal dis­course. And at the same time, I re­ally tried to make things not only re­al­is­tic, but to have parts of the film that are like a dream. It was a dif­fi­cult process. In France we have an ex­pres­sion – river film or broad flow film – where we move be­tween char­ac­ters and sto­ries. That was com­pli­cated and at the same time very emo­tional. I was cry­ing as I wrote. I didn’t want to make some­thing like a doc­u­men­tary or a docu­d­rama. I just put all my mem­o­ries in it. I was record­ing every­thing in my mind and hop­ing to one day do some­thing with the ma­te­rial. I didn’t try to find the mean­ing or the shape.”


Against the quasi-fan­tasy se­quences – in­clud­ing the Seine run­ning red – Campillo’s film is char­ac­terised by un­var­nished se­quences of sex and death. A late wake scene de­picts the poignantly re­al­is­tic treat­ment of a dead body.

“I wanted to show all the things that you hide un­der the car­pet, as we say in France,” says the writer-direc­tor. “So peo­ple have sex in my film. In a film about Aids, you have to show all these things. When some­one dies, for any rea­son, you have to stay with the body for a long time, es­pe­cially when it’s at two o’ clock in the morn­ing. Ev­ery­one wants to go to the room and see the body and af­ter it be­comes ir­rel­e­vant be­cause you can­not do any­thing. You don’t cry. It’s a very weird emo­tion, like a dream or night­mare, like you are dis­con­nected from what is hap­pen­ing. That spe­cific feel­ing of anaes­the­sia was im­por­tant. But there are beau­ti­ful, ten­der mo­ments around death, too. And I wanted to show those.”

Hav­ing pre­vi­ously shot the fea­tures The Re­turned (2004) and Eastern Boys (2013) on film, Campillo’s switch to dig­i­tal added to the spon­tane­ity of 120 BPM.

“I did my first film like a Hitch­cock film,” he laughs. “It was on 35mm. so when you hear the clap, ev­ery­body stops breath­ing, and you have to do the most per­fect take. But with the dig­i­tal cam­eras, I can have three cam­eras. So I don’t need very long days. From the first day on the set, we were chang­ing things as we went along.”

The staffing took place in a sim­i­larly un­ortho­dox spirit. Ar­gen­tine ac­tor Nahuel Pérez Bis­ca­yart was cast as the fire­brand Sean. Ar­naud Valois, who had quit act­ing sev­eral years ear­lier to be­come a masseuse, was cho­sen to play Nathan. “So I found an Ar­gen­tinian ac­tor who is very baroque and I love this be­cause he had to play over­stated po­lit­i­cal char­ac­ter un­til the time when he gets sick he has no more dis­tance from the dis­ease. And the other ac­tor had got tired of wait­ing for di­rec­tors to call and be­came a masseuse. And I loved that be­cause the way he was touch­ing Sean in the film was ten­der, but at the same time, like med­i­cal care.”

I can’t help but no­tice that the gen­er­ally jolly Campillo has a par­tic­u­lar glint in his eye while dis­cussing the pe­riod when 120 BPM is set. I won­der if he feels that, de­spite all the at­tached tragedy, queer culture has lost some­thing that burned es­pe­cially brightly dur­ing the Act Up cru­sades.

“It’s an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion be­cause you have to imag­ine that when I was 18, in front of my fam­ily, I was still in the closet, but I was feel­ing very strong be­cause I was like Gene Jenet!”

He laughs: “I was an out­cast, I was so proud of that. But when the epi­demic started I re­alised that we needed to be con­sid­ered by so­ci­ety. And that our love – our cou­ples – must be recog­nised by the state. For in­stance, when my first love died, I was noth­ing to him legally. So, as gays and les­bians – we did not say LGBTQ back then, and I pre­fer LGBTQ – there has al­ways been a ten­sion be­tween be­ing dif­fer­ent and need­ing recog­ni­tion. Act Up hap­pened mid-way be­tween 1968 and the strug­gle for gay mar­riage. It’s not like here. It was a hard strug­gle. Be­cause the peo­ple which were against gay mar­riage did the same ac­tions we did 20 years ago with Act Up. Now we’re an­other form of in­sti­tu­tion.”

120 BPM isout­now

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