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 tangible sense of life and fury.
120 BPM is diligent and believable as a 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, or passionately debating the nuances of strategy in meetings governed by strict codes of conduct.
There’s a broad roster of characters to juggle — including leaders Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) and Sophie (Adèle Haenel); Nathan (Arnaud Valois) a young HIV-negative newcomer who provides an entryway into the complex machinations of the group, and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a terminally affected young man who becomes Nathan’s lover — but nobody is anonymous, and Campillo is crucially and painfully aware of the individual tragedies that made up the larger one.
The group’s activism draws exhausting resistance from all sides; from politicians, medical professionals, teachers and even sections of the gay community who see increased publicity around the AIDS crisis as inconvenient to their preferred lifestyle. Indeed, living with, or in proximity to the disease, Campillo’s characters grow accustomed to the political challenges and personal devastations of a fight with such high stakes. Living so close to tragedy can emphasise the urgency of life, and the director studs his film with quiet, tenderly staged love scenes and moments of jubilant abandon.
120 BPM’s standout image, repeated several times, is a hazy shot of the ACT UP group dancing in 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 blood cells. Scored by the throbbing beat of the club, the shot is a poetic and potent, but also emblematic of Campillo’s thrillingly cinematic approach to his subject matter.
Lead actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart will be at HOME for a Q&A chaired by Dr Andrew Moor, Reader in Film at Manchester Metropolitan University following the preview screening on Tue 27 Mar.