120 Beats Per Minute
A reflection on our collective capacity to realise the seemingly impossible


5 April 2018

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Plot summary

An activist group going to battle for those stricken with HIV/AIDS take on major Pharma companies and the lacklustre government response with bold, invasive protests – embracing their mission with literal life or death urgency. Amid rallies, protests, fierce debates and ecstatic dance parties, the newcomer Nathan falls in love with Sean, the group's radical firebrand, and their passion sparks against the shadow of mortality as the activists fight for a breakthrough.

French-Moroccan director Robin Campillo was living in Paris when the AIDS epidemic emerged in the 1980s. The young film school graduate witnessed first-hand the dark period that followed: the steep climb of infection rates, rising death tolls and the shockingly insufficient responses from worldwide government and pharmaceutical companies. He has described feeling ‘paralysed with fear’ and utter disillusionment with film as an agent of change. Then in 1992 he joined pressure group ACT UP and became involved in AIDS activism, forever changing his perspective on ‘the epidemic, life, and cinema’. With 120 Beats per Minute (120 battements par minute) Campillo takes the viewer back to this time, to share a piece of history close to his heart, to tell a love story and to affirm the strength of the collective.

Campillo has made a film about care, and the kind of care he’s interested in depicting comes not from the nuclear family or health services, but from community – specifically a community with the organisational structure to make a difference to a shared issue. He keeps a concise focus on a fictional version of the ACT UP Paris of his youth, with the film revolving around two members of the group: mixed HIV status couple Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). At times individuals within the group reach despair but take turns to bring each other back with their commitment to love and understanding. In 120 BPM, care comes in the form of heated debates in ACT UP’s lecture theatre HQ, care comes in the form of surrendering one’s bathtub to the production of fake blood for the next mission, and one exhilarating time care comes in the form of Nathan visiting Sean in his hospital bed and discreetly bringing him to orgasm. While the group are made predominantly of gay men living in the city centre, the film subtly extends beyond them and there’s a clear sense of solidarity with other HIV-risk groups – sex workers, drug users, prisoners and foreigners – who were also ignored by government discourse. The network of support established by ACT UP is shown to be a gift to the crisis.

An issue highlighted by Campillo is how imperative funding and access to health services are. His characters – savvy by necessity – are shown using condoms, openly discussing how recently they’ve been tested and analysing their results. The result is a film that is refreshingly lucid about sexual health. The UK screening of 120 BPM was five minutes from Soho’s Dean Street Express, the most popular sexual health centre for gay and bisexual men in the country. The clinic is now disastrously oversubscribed due in part to the closure of three local NHS clinics, which have gone under recently due to cuts. Recent statistics show that one in twenty gay men living in London have undiagnosed HIV, and it’s recommended that those having unprotected sex with new partners should get tested every three months. This crisis is still in motion, important services are under threat, in short: we can’t take our eye off the ball for a second. Fittingly, Campillo’s film doesn’t imply any sort of closure, although the activists work tirelessly there’s no neat sense of ‘that’s a wrap’ to be found in 120 BPM.

Even though the film is grounded in the real – and it’s a relief that the portrayal of activism is never sugar-coated – there’s an undeniably surreal edge to Campillo’s storytelling. This is in part due to music, which permeates all corners of the film: French composer Arnaud Rebotini’s soundtrack references house, which was thriving at that time (the ‘120 beats’ of the title refers both to the genre’s typical rhythm, and to the rhythm of an elevated heart rate). The house-flooded nightclub, along with the lecture theatre, is a vital space where the group experience agency and freedom. The surreal in 120 BPM also conveys an ambivalent intimacy with the altered states of sickness and death. Campillo’s characters are floating in the realm of the unknown, yet they keep hope. In the nightclub, the airborne fragments caught in the light could just as easily be glitter or ash. The liminal is a place where hope can breathe, and a few carefully placed scenes make the viewer question what’s real and what’s possible, whether it’s a day-trip to a beach strewn with WWII concrete remnants or a fantastical scene where we’re told to believe the activists have turned the Seine river blood red. Campillo has essentially created a reflection on our collective capacity to realise the seemingly impossible, and his film resonates not just with the mind but with the frequency of an elevated heart rate.