120 BPM (Beats per Minute) Review
After the recent release of The Reagan Show documentary, which overlooked the mistreatment of HIV and AIDS sufferers in the mid-to-late 80s, comes Robin Campillo's Cannes hit, 120 Beats per Minute. The powerful ACT UP activist movement that found such meaning in New York is relived through its early 90s collective in Paris. The group is a personal and collaborative cross section of men and women fighting against the injustices imposed upon them by a society unwilling to face the changing shape of the sexual landscape. Robin Campillo’s film places us at the heart of the group’s activism, driven by declining health and a lack of public awareness about the virus.
Much of the film's best work takes place during the heated debates that occur during their regular group meetings. Campillo was responsible for penning the highly rated Laurent Cantet film, The Class, and these exchanges give you a clear sense of the passion and frustration felt by the gay community during this period. After watching their protest methods in action, we join the group in their brightly lit classroom, listening in while new recruits are talked through the basic rules that apply to the meetings. While not everyone involved has tested HIV positive, they all know the bombshell could be dropped onto their lives at any moment.
Campillo introduces us to a few key members, such as Sophie (Adèle Haenel), president Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and a small smattering of other regular contributors. Running for a substantial 140 minutes, Campillo slowly finds a focus within the group dynamic. The developing relationship between Sean – who is HIV positive - and Nathan – who is not – slowly presents itself as the personal story running alongside the political fight they are all engaged with. Much of which is spent fighting against Government bureaucracy and a pharmaceutical company that stalls on releasing important test results and minimises access to a new course of drug treatment.
Experienced cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie sticks to a fairly functional style, occasionally drifting off into oblique imagery to illustrate the hidden and evolving nature of the disease. When the meetings are finished and the intensity of the demonstrations fade away, the group lose themselves in the growing house scene and the soundtrack pulls out a few retro gems, although the use of Bronski Beat's Small Town Boy feels a little too on the nose (especially as it came out almost a decade before the period the film was set in). No one performance leaps out ahead of the rest which is partly why Sean and Nathan's relationship fails to truly ignite an emotional spark.
The same can be said about the group itself, and it is telling that the scenes where they come together to debate points of action remain the most compelling. Much of what we learn about the ACT UP movement is surface level only and never seems to get to the heart of the matter, or the people so passionately involved with it. By spreading his focus so thinly, Campillo misses the human element that seems essential to a subject such as this. The director himself was a former ACT UP activist and there is no doubting the sincerity that lies behind the story. 120 BPM is a solid effort and brutally honest in places, marking a crucial moment that helped break down outdated perceptions about the fight against HIV and AIDS.