120 Beats Per Minute
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