Director Robin Campillo follows up his 2013 Eastern Boys with the rangey yet achingly intimate 120 BPM. The film charts the activities and group dynamics of Parisien ACT UP activists in the early nineties. Taking home the Grand Prix at Cannes last year, Campillo draws on his experiences as a member of the AIDS organisation to craft a film that bounces between moments of direct action, raucous planning meetings, raves and hospital beds with a tangible sense of life and fury.
We’re introduced to the world of ACT UP through Nathan (Arnaud Valois) a young HIV-negative gay man who attends his first meeting at the start of the film and in doing so, provides an entryway into the complex machinations of the activist group. It’s through Nathan that Campillo carefully orients the viewer in this universe, as he is explained the strict codes of conduct that govern ACT UP, learns the intricate politics of the AIDS crisis circa 90s Paris, and is introduced to the personalities involved.
For a time, 120 BPM is diligent and effective as a rhythmic procedural that follows its large ensemble as they do the work of activists: bursting into ineffective or negligent research clinics (fake-blood bags in hand), meeting stakeholders, carrying out demonstrations or passionately debating the nuances of strategy. We’re presented with a broad roster of characters; amongst a score of others, Nathan meets leaders Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) and Sophie (Adèle Haenel) and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a HIV-positive man in his early twenties who becomes his lover.
The group’s interactions and sense of solidarity are all distinctly attuned to living with, or in proximity to HIV and AIDS. There are arguments and disagreements over policy and personal matters, but the film shows how the activists come together for the heart-wrenchingly practical procedures that they deploy in the face of tragedy. Campillo also studs his film with quiet, tenderly staged love scenes and moments of jubilant abandon that become ever more devastating as 120 BPM narrows its focus to the relationship between Nathan and Sean in its final third.
Indeed, 120 BPM’s standout image, comes in a hazy scene in which the ACT UP group dance through the early hours. The camera racks focus to settle on particles of dust above the group’s heads, where, backlit by the club lighting, they slowly morph into HIV-infected blood cells. Scored by the throbbing beat of the club, the shot is a frighteningly potent and cinematic rendering of the inescapable shadow of the hovering disease and the life that persists in its presence.