120 Beats Per Minute

The Guardian Weekly - - Culture - Sim­ran Hans

Atwo-hour his­tor­i­cal drama about gay ac­tivism in the late 1980s/early 1990s – with sub­ti­tles! – might sound like a hard sell, but French writer-di­rec­tor Robin Campillo’s 120 Beats Per Minute (aka BPM) is also a house-mu­sic opera, an ur­gent, steamy love story and a ju­bi­lant bat­tle cry. Cen­tring on the ac­tivist group Act Up-Paris, an off­shoot of the Aids Coali­tion to Un­leash Power that started in New York in 1987, it serves as a snap­shot of those who re­sisted in the early days of the dis­ease’s global pandemic. The film lives its “pol­i­tics in the first per­son”, show­ing how Act Up lob­bied for leg­is­la­tion, re­search and treat­ment for those with HIV/Aids, while also track­ing a ten­der ro­mance be­tween two of its mem­bers.

Campillo places the viewer bang in the mid­dle of the Act Up com­mu­nity. Mem­bers wear­ing fake-blood-splat­tered T-shirts ex­plain that – in the lec­ture hall – democ­racy means trans­parency. There will be no clap­ping (just click­ing) so as not to drown out those speak­ing, and all de­bate will take place in the room (pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions and hall­way chat­ter are pro­hib­ited).

The ten­sion and in­fight­ing Campillo shows is riv­et­ing and ed­i­fy­ing. This isn’t the rose-tinted mem­ory of an over­looked po­lit­i­cal move­ment, but the pulling of the af­flic­tive past into the present tense. And what could be more af­flic­tive than love? Dra­matic per­sonal stakes are in­tro­duced as militant HIV-“poz” livewire Sean (the scene-steal­ing Nahuel Pérez Bis­ca­yart) and shy, hand­some new mem­ber Nathan (Ar­naud Valois) are drawn into each other’s or­bits. Yet Campillo is care­ful to cast the Aids cri­sis as both per­sonal tragedy and so­cial epi­demic. Con­ver­sa­tion, danc­ing and sex are pre­sented as es­sen­tial, in­sep­a­ra­ble forms of di­rect ac­tion – and all are vi­tal parts of the film’s DNA. Whether in scenes of the group storm­ing schools to dis­trib­ute con­doms and leaflets about STDs, or a hos­pi­tal bed hand-job of­fered as an act of love, the film doesn’t shy away from sex.

Nor should it. Main­stream films such as Philadel­phia were care­ful to treat the solemn his­tory of the Aids cri­sis with hos­pi­tal gloves, but this ten­dency to­wards taste­ful se­ri­ous­ness frames their cen­tral jour­neys as a stoic and sex­less death march. What feels rev­o­lu­tion­ary – and rev­e­la­tory – about this film and its char­ac­ters is the way they re­sist that urge, man­ag­ing to find mo­ments of gal­vanis­ing fury and ec­static joy while in the grip of de­bil­i­tat­ing dis­ease. Ar­naud Re­bo­tini’s dis­so­nant, hum­ming, house-in­flected score – and the metronome-like heart­beats that un­der­score the ac­tion – are re­minders that, even on their deathbed, a per­son has a pulse. In its dy­ing gasps, the film grasps at life. Se­lected UK cin­e­mas and on-de­mand

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