Review: 120 BPM (Beats per Minute)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.  

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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.

Top 17 Films Of 2017

#17. Landline

#16. Wind River

#15. The Florida Project

#14. I Am Not Your Negro

#13. Kedi

#12. The Work

#11. The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Maki

#10. Beach Rats

DIR. Eliza Hittman. Starring: Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge

A moody and soulful portrait of teenage sexuality, world’s away from the lavish sultriness of Call Me By Your Name, and yet just as vital in its depiction of the tempestuous waters of adolescence. Set in the machismo world of Brooklyn, a young man (British newcomer Dickinson) grapples with urges of a more prohibited nature one somnolent summer. Whilst the plot might seem similar to and outdone by Moonlight, the gauzy, grainy visuals and penetrating sense of melancholy and menace will have you gripped from the off, and leave you haunted.

#9. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore

DIR. Macon Blair. Starring: Melanie Lynskey, Elijah Wood

This under-hyped Netflix release from Macon Blair (best known for his bug-eyed and blunderingly brutal performance in Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin) was a winning combination of suspense, absurdity and snakes. Like 40s era screwball comedy mashed up with the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple.

#8. A Ghost Story

DIR. David Lowery. Starring: Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck

 

David Lowery serves up big metaphysical themes and existential plight in this intimate and melancholic tale of love lost too soon. With its mesmeric cinematography (shot in a 1:33 ratio), muted performances and entrancing soundtrack, this is pensive, lyrical, plaintive and audacious cinema.

#7. Good Time

DIR. Josh & Benny Safdie. Starring: Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Robert Pattinson transforms as a twitchy criminal on-the-run in this heady, propulsive, bad-feeling-brewing thriller from the Safdie brothers that keeps the unexpected twists coming whilst never losing its sense of pathos and heart.

#6. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

DIR. Martin McDonagh. Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell

Has Frances McDormand ever not been good? Irrespective of your opinion, she’s abrasively brilliant in Martin McDonagh’s third and best feature as a short-tempered small-town mother squaring up to the hapless authorities that have yet to convict her daughter’s murderer. With a raft of idiosyncratic characters (Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell and Peter Dinklage among them) of varying moral dubiety and common sense, it is by turns tragic, brutal and uproariously funny (if you like your comedy carbon black). Also makes a case for Caleb Landry-Jones as 2017’s MVP (see also The Florida Project and Get Out).

#5. Raw

DIR. Julia Ducournau. Starring: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella

A potent coming-of-ager that depicts its female protagonist’s burgeoning hungers with such an unwavering, carnal intensity that you might mistake your desire to look away for distaste. But savour the subtext and there’s a lot to feast upon.

#4. God Own’s Country

DIR. Francis Lee. Starring: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones

A salty, muddy, bloody and extremely sexy love story set on a Yorkshire farm. Inevitably its been compared to Brokeback Mountain, but this is less anguished than Ang Lee’s decades-sprawling affair. The love between these young farmer Johnny and Romanian farm hand Gheorghe is allowed its moments of tenderness, domesticity and hope.

#3. The Handmaiden

DIR. Park Chan-wook. Starring: Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Kim Min-hee

Spell-binding to behold, this labyrinthine erotic thriller is a return to form for South Korean director Park Chan-wook.  One third of the way through this triptych structured maze of desire, deceit and despotism, a twist announced itself so gobsmackingly and so brilliantly, I was literally shunted to the edge of my seat, where I remained for the next two thirds of the film. Rarely is a film so long, so tightly-coiled and exacting in its execution. A work of artistic genius.

#2. Lady Bird

DIR. Greta Gerwig. Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracey Letts, Lucas Hedges

Greta Gerwig has made a film as kind-hearted, insightful, hilarious and offbeat as the woman herself. Lady Bird might announce herself on screen with the wallop of body hitting road as she exits her mother’s car in transit to escape a heated conversation, but this is a quieter and more astute film than this initial, almost slapstick moment suggests. It’s uproariously funny and wickedly wry, poignantly wise in ways that Lady Bird just isn’t yet and about the pains of growing up and fleeing the nest, it gets so much so very right. (The moment after Lady Bird loses her virginity is of particular, and spectacular sagacity).

#1. Call Me By Your Name

DIR. Luca Guadagnino. Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg

An undulating, irrepressibly romantic film that brought heat and jouissance to a bleak midwinter reality. I was swept up by the sunshine, soaring music and sensitivity to the ecstasy and turmoil of young love. As gorgeous to look at as it is to experience. Chalamet is a big discovery for Hollywood, long may they give him roles as peachy as Elio. Full review here.

Everything I Watched In 2017

Ok, so not everything. Like most millennials I’m prone to hyperbole and a click-bait headline. These are all the drama/fictional shows I consumed – hence why I haven’t included Blue Planet II, The Great British Bake-Off or Strictly Come Dancing and the hours of SNL sketches and US chat show interviews enjoyed on YouTube.

And before you ask about my priorities, yes I still need to see Season 2 of The Crown and Godless and Season 2 of Search Party and no I don’t care for Twin Peaks (I’ll eat my words later when I become obsessed). I never fell foul to the Doctor Foster hype and have a dozen other things on my ‘To-Watch’ list that I’ll get around to eventually (Black Mirror, Born To Kill, the rest of Halt and Catch Fire. Hell maybe I’ll eventually finish The Sopranos and Breaking Bad whilst I am it).

Other things to note: I gave up on Fargo and Rellik this year after the first two episodes, and also lost interest in This Is Us (too much schmaltz for me). I watched the first episode of Ozark and Mindhunter respectively, but found them too dour and have been intending to resume watching The Americans  for over a year, but alas the TV shows below are the only ones I found time for.

The stars denote my favourites!

 

  1. Search Party | Channel 4 (Season 1) 
  2. Girls | HBO (Season 6)
  3. Big Little Lies | HBO (Season 1) ★
  4. Love | Netflix (Season 2)
  5. Broadchurch | ITV (Season 3)
  6. I Love Dick | Amazon Prime (Season 1) ★
  7. Orange Is The New Black | Netflix (Season 5)
  8. House of Cards | Netflix (Season 5)
  9. Paula | BBC
  10. The Handmaid’s Tale | Hulu (Season 1) 
  11. Glow | Netflix (Season 1)
  12. Master of None | Netflix (Season 1 & 2) ★
  13. The Leftovers | HBO (Season 1 & 2)
  14. Game Of Thrones | HBO (Season 7)
  15. Top of the Lake: China Girl | BBC 2
  16. Insecure | HBO (Season 1 & 2) ★
  17. Atlanta | FX (Season 1) 
  18. Trust Me | ITV
  19. Strike: Cuckoo’s Calling | BBC
  20. Room 104 | HBO (Season 1)
  21. Riviera | Sky Atlantic (Season 1)
  22. The Deuce | HBO (Season 1) 
  23. Transparent | Amazon Prime (Season 4)
  24. Liar | ITV (Season 1)
  25. Tin Star | Sky Atlantic (Season 1)
  26. Halt and Catch Fire | AMC/Amazon Prime (Season 1-2) ★
  27. The Child In Time | BBC One
  28. Stranger Things | Netflix (Season 2)
  29. Peaky Blinders | BBC 2 (Season 2-4) 
  30. The Girlfriend Experience | Amazon Prime (Season 2)
  31. Babylon Berlin | Sky Atlantic (Season 1)
  32. The Trip to Spain | Sky Atlantic
  33. Easy | Netflix (Season 2) ★
  34. Howard’s End | BBC One
  35. Witnesses: A Frozen Death | BBC 4
  36. Feud | FX