Film Review: 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute)

120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) is a French drama film by Robin Campillo, focusing on the actions of ACT UP Paris, a direct-action movement looking to effect change in the fight against the Aids epidemic of the 1990s. The film is moving, combining triumph, failure and bliss to create a sensitive portrait of the young, fearless and fear-filled ensemble.

Campillo, who scripted Laurent Cantet’s 2008 Palme-winning The Class, here writes & directs, and he does so with a certain amount of visual flair but more often than not the visuals are rather workaday. Scenes set in a nightclub could have lifted the film to a different level, however, they feel cheap and do not deliver on the promise that is initially felt. Campillo sets the movement’s actions as if they are living in wartime, with parallels drawn to the 1848, and although it is clear to see why Campillo made this decision it is reduced to being referenced through dense dialogue, rather than engaging action.

The movement is made up of predominantly male, HIV-positive, activists who see time as precious in every instance, and they have even laid down ground rules for their weekly debate meetings including the acts of clicking fingers in agreement and hissing in dissent as to not interrupt the speaker. The first debate we see is regarding the throwing of fake blood and handcuffing of the principal speaker at a recent demonstration at a medical conference. For a non-violent direct-action group, this is a pretty big screw up and the public fallout is only going to one way. The debate allows us to be introduced the principal characters of the film, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), Nathan (Arnaud Valois), Sophie (Adèle Haenel) and Thibault (Antoine Reinartz). Sean is HIV-positive and a livewire, has a considerable amount of lip and is the moral heart of the film and the vanguard of the action. Nathan is HIV-negative, a rarity in the movement, and is much quieter and clearly has a crush on Sean. Sophie is the exasperated organiser of the group and Thibault, a de-facto leader in name only whose authority is a source of tension for the movement.

The film follows their attempts to effect change, with the scenes of protest the most engaging. Each person’s role clearly defined, and the characters are given depth in these moments. The group uses a fake blood concoction to add shock and awe to proceedings, with Campillo’s camera lingering on the unsuspecting workers caught up in the protest as it unfolds to good effect.

Clocking in at 140 minutes, the film struggles with pacing and could have been easily cut down by 30 minutes to allow the film to become tighter and more urgent, however, this cut languishes in the middle slightly, forcing the viewer to care slightly less about proceedings which is a shame as these characters are wonderful to spend time with.

As the film heads towards its emotional conclusion you’re left feeling shattered. The ending although perhaps obvious is no less moving and the pay-off for staying with this dialogue heavy, unflinching, erotic, tightly wound film is clear. It’s a hard won pay off and the film is a necessary, timely reminder that so many people did not have the ability to have their own pay-off despite all of the effort they put in attempting to do so.

Still In Cinemas

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