120 BPM (Beats per Minute) plays like an exercise in memory more than it does pedagogy, pulsating with the vividness and vigour of lived experience. Upon learning that writer-director Robin Campillo was a “rank and file member of ACT UP Paris” throughout the 90s, the activist group whose enterprises the film documents, you can understand why.
“There tends to be a collective amnesia” surrounding the attitudes, negligence and obstruction that the AIDS community faced, “homophobia was the standard”, Campillo remarks in the film’s production notes. His third outing as a director operates as a shot of stimulation to the synapses, a sharp jolt of remembrance that the fight for rights was laborious and contentious, marked by many more losses than wins.
Based on the model initiated by ACT UP New York, which was formed in 1987 and defines itself as “a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis”, the audience are inducted to the Parisian division alongside 4 of its newest members. The last to be introduced, Nathan (Arnaud Valois), is the closest we get to a protagonist in what is a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger, anguish and urgency. One of the most vocal and rule-breaking members, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who captures ours as well as Nathan’s attention, is who we’ll come to care about most.
What becomes immediately apparent in the lecture hall where ACT UP has its weekly meetings is the plurality of voices that have a stake in the movement. Moments after a demonstration has taken an unplanned direction, Sophie (Adèle Haenel), Sean and several others debate whether the violence of their actions will be condemned. The matter isn’t resolved, its merely aired and you sense for all their common ground, this is also a coalition of disparate individuals with their own agendas.
Indeed, as we return to this venue many times throughout the film, a series of different issues are given visibility. It’s not just young, white, cis, gay men that are affected, but gay women, men of colour, trans women, a woman whose child was infected by a blood transfusion, and as a result there are many different experiences and perspectives to incorporate. It’s a credit to Campillo that one voice is never favoured. Their conversations – though sometimes heated and always lively – weave in the many concerns and conflicts that face the AIDS community and how difficult it is to organise effective and sustained militancy.
There are several moments of punctuation that serve as reminder of the personal cost that fuels this political action. Whilst the scientific language around AIDS is left largely unexplained, mirroring the medical unfamiliarity the general public and indeed sufferers had during the epidemic, and were often left to their own device to obtain, something that is raised time and time again is the CD4 count of HIV-positive (poz) members. Below 200 and the diagnosis is full-blown AIDS. The lower the count, the worse the fate. As meetings and marches continue, there’s relative stagnation in terms of tangible treatment progress and the drug company’s willingness to be transparent about the results of their trials. Sean’s repeated statement of his declining CD4 count is a stark and quantitative expression of how imperative change is, and how slow it is to come.
What this also does is reframe the epidemic as a medical crisis, where it had previously being stigmatised and politicised, or mounted as the predicament for the ostracised gay community as opposed to society as whole. Campillo is upfront about maligning the two treatment options available to poz’s at the time, and the injurious medical trials that only the “desperate” would subject themselves to. More than just a snapshot of the past, it’s a necessary reconfiguration of history. And perhaps because it’s still such a recent history – it feels strange to call its a period-piece when the characters all have clothes and hairstyles and vernaculars that would slot rights into a contemporary context – there’s something all the more powerful to its telling.
For all the intimacies explored, Campillo is aware that this story belong to its collective, to the nuances and intensity of his characters (to which he is astutely attuned). His brilliant ensemble cast more than deliver that sense of immediacy, and the spectrum of their experience.
Equally important is the depiction of its sufferers as more than their suffering. After each major protest – at pharmaceutical labs, schools and gay pride marches, where issues such as treatment, prevention, awareness, morale and stigma are addressed – the group descends upon a nightclub to sweat away their stresses. It’s an emphatic reminder of the youth and vitality of ACT UP’s members, as well as those most affected, and infected by AIDS at large. Indeed, one particularly intimate moment recalls Sean’s loss of virginity and the encounter which transmitted the disease at the age of 16. Later, these dance club scenes, at which Sean is a coquettish, careening and central presence, become all the more poignant for his absence as his body, and the state, continues to fail him.
And yet it’s not all doom and gloom. Paradoxically, the group are seen to dance, cheerlead, kiss, cavort and copulate in innumerable scenes. There is none of the skittishness or sterility surrounding homosexuality that has plagued previous depictions of the AIDS crisis (particularly mainstream American outputs), and Campillo’s film is well-served by a particularly French sensibility to prioritise sensuality. The central romantic relationship that develops alongside the group’s demonstrations and debates brims with vim and desire, defiant in the face of a debilitating disease. It’s also touchingly sensitive to the various strains through which HIV manifests, and as Sean reveals ailments such as Kaposi’s sarcoma (a type of cancer that externalises itself in purplish skin lesions) and mouth thrush, Nathan’s want and need for him never declines.
What’s more, there are comedic moments flecked throughout. An awkward revolving door that somewhat subdues the impact of a pharmaceutical building being stormed; an over-zealous throwing of a pouch containing fake blood (used to smear and splatter across the walls/faces of perpetrators) that subsequently douses one of its members; the ridicule of lacklustre slogans being suggested at meetings. A cornucopia of emotions are explored, from grief to gaiety and back again.
As with sexuality, Robin Campillo also doesn’t shy away from death and the final handful of scenes are at once notable and devastating for the visibility of a dead body. It’s not ushered away or shrouded in a blanket, rather it remains in the bedroom next door as the group gathers and discusses how best to proceed. Another life might be over, but the struggle is unequivocally not.
Ultimately Campillo’s film is a living, breathing, writhing embodiment of ACT UP’s slogan ‘Silence = Death (Mort)’. From the clicking of its members in concord and the rising indignation of those speaking up to the foghorn sound that indicates a demonstration and the house music that pulsates throughout, this is invigorating and confrontational cinema at its most enlivening and eye-opening.