Robin Campillo’s 120 Beats Per Minute explores the legacy of direct-action group ACT UP Paris, a chapter of a worldwide organizational group of queer activists committed to spreading the word about HIV/AIDS and seeking faster pathways to treatment.
Official Selection at Cannes this year had its fair share of biopics. There was the eponymous Rodin, about the life of the sculptor, and the cleverly original Redoubtable, about Jean-Luc Godard’s dabble with communism and matrimony. But the film which most honored and elevated a true tale was not the story of a person, but a movement – Robin Campillo’s 120 battements par minute (120 Beats per Minute). For Campillo, this meant fictionalized characters in a real period of time – perhaps more real than many period pieces put on screen lately, because it has since been so forgotten in France, and even the United States. In the early 1990s, AIDS was still overcoming its stigma as “gay cancer” and pharmaceutical companies were unsure of proper treatment and unwilling to take risks.
Their opposition is ACT UP Paris, a chapter of a worldwide organizational group of queer activists committed to forming a community based on spreading the word about HIV/AIDS and seeking faster pathways to treatment. Still a prominent queer rights group today, it’s easy to forget that ACT UP’s message in the 1980s and 90s was unwelcome and often countered what public institutions were saying or doing to battle the sexually transmitted disease. Over the course of the film, ACT UP sprays pharmaceutical company headquarters with blood, marches to commemorate recent deaths due to AIDS, organizes Pride parades, and delivers pamphlets regarding safe sex to public school classrooms – to which they face condemnation and arrests with steadfast nonviolence.
It’s hard to capture a movement through a fictionalized lens. It’s also hard to negotiate real political history as a process towards liberation without distorting the figures in power at the time. Ignorance versus action is not the same as good versus evil. These difficult details are where Campillo most impressively succeeds, delivering a film that was destined both for the 2017 Cannes Festival’s Queer Palme and canonization in the works of political cinema.
While a single protagonist is hard to tease out of the leadership group, the emotional epicenter of the story is the relationship between longtime advocate Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois). The two connect at an ACT UP meeting and soon begin sleeping together; Sean has AIDS from one of his very first sexual encounters, but Nathan is clean. Their conversations and the nature of their casual yet meaningful relationship shine as realistic and unique ruminations on a period and demographic far too long overlooked by cinema. The AIDS crisis, and the terror of losing friends while still in the fullness of youth, these are concepts which have long been in the domain of theater – off-screen, and where the character count is limited to the actors on the stage that night.
120 Beats Per Minute, for its part, would be at home on Broadway; few characters exert themselves from outside the ACT UP circle (the exception being pharmaceutical representatives) which has the feel of an ensemble cast, eight to ten unique leading members in all.
Campillo does reality a service by making the only real antagonist of the story ignorance, the same enemy ACT UP encounters in real life. Tension is most often felt within meetings of this awareness group, as they decide how loud, friendly, or militant to make their messages. The result is a pragmatic, if not thrilling, understanding of queer relations at the time, and a basic overlay of issues which still pockmark the community today. The characters face the constant threat of arrest for minor crimes and are often spoken to tersely, but the entirety of the film passes without an act of directed bigotry or violence to further dramatize their experience. In this way, Campillo sacrifices interest for truth: the true evil of the time was merely a slow death, unwelcome but not unforeseen.
This naturally means that, as with most narratives about AIDS, major characters pass away at the climax. 120 Beats Per Minute delivers this in a similar fashion of honest and predictable, refusing to score points by inflating the death itself into something which could overshadow its cause. In fact, the exact opposite happens. Any audience members expecting the soundtrack to kick in, the minor characters to break down, the visual eulogy will be surely disappointed.
The important death near the end of the film is borderline quotidian. A young man passes away in his mother’s house, and a friend comes by to help deal with the body, inviting more from ACT UP. They make coffee, and start working on a plan to make political capital out of this end of life. Few memories are passed back and forth, and few tears are shed. The overall result is anticlimactic, alienating, and not a little cold – at least that’s how I saw it – but perhaps that was Campillo’s point. When the AIDS disease was still a juggernaut, tearing apart communities and savaging lives, there was probably little to do but get used to it – and try, solemnly, to get something done. 120 Beats Per Minute then, is an example of using cinema to illustrate, not indulge.
A non-documentary feature film which makes no concessions to heightened narrative drama and cheap tricks, 120 BPM is remarkable in the most overlooked of ways. At Cannes, it shone out largely in contrast to all the films around it, putting the hard truth before the beautiful lie. The result is a favorite film of few, but we need this kind more than any other to keep us honest and alert.