“120 BPM (Beats Per Minute)” Review

120 BPM poster120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) [2017] – ★★★★

This French-language film about ACT UP-Paris’s activities to promote AIDS-related issues in the early 1990s is defined by director Robin Campillo’s personal experience, which makes the film even more potent, significant and poignant. At the centre of the story is the ACT UP-Paris organisation itself, a non-violent activist group based in Paris, which tries to defend the rights of those affected by HIV and AIDS (especially minorities), and to seek better treatment for them. The film boasts great performances from Arnaud Valois (Nathan), Nahuel Perez Biscayart (Sean) and Adele Haenel (The Unknown Girl (2016) as Sophie, but it is probably the sheer power of its main message which is the most fascinating and memorable of its assets. An important film to make, 120 BPM unfortunately also suffers from excessive length and the inability to successfully shuffle organisational and personal issues in the story’s  second half. 

A winner of many significant awards at both the Cannes Film Festival and the Cesar Award ceremony, the film stands out from the crowd because of its undeniable conviction and belief in the premise. It is wise that the film opens with an ordinary meeting of the organisation where it welcomes new members, because the speaker for the group explains to us the origin, the rules and the aims of the group. We note its distinctive black and pink slogans, and its customary snapping of fingers by way of clapping. What follow are the group’s weekly sittings, and we gain a real insight into ACT UP-Paris’s internal meetings where members (those who are affected by HIV and those who are not) devise their strategies, eager to do everything they can to ensure that the French government listens to the sufferers of the epidemic and provides the best care for them. However, the stigma is still attached to the sufferers of the disease, and AIDS is still associated with drug use, homosexuality, foreignness, prostitution, and general criminality and poverty. Thus, ACT UP-Paris fights primarily the ignorance and the indifference.

During one of ACT UP-Paris meetings, it becomes clear that the last effort to campaign for the causes did not go as planned, and what had to be a non-violent protest resulted in the handcuffing of a person by the group and in the throwing of fake blood at a wrong moment. Extreme always makes an impression, especially when no one is prepared to listen otherwise. Later we also learn that a certain laboratory in Paris may not want to release certain important AIDS-related results that may help sufferers, and ACT-UP attempts to do whatever needed to obtain these results for its members and others. Going to schools and educating, as well as giving away free condoms and clean syringes, go hand-in-hand with the organisation’s aims and its priority of seeing urgent actions/preventative measures being taken. However, when it becomes clear that a new molecule developed may save/help sufferers (other treatments do not work), and there is the shortage of these molecules, a sense of despair heightens further.  

120 beats per second

The film plays like a documentary, and there is a sense of urgency in the group’s activities. It is the early 1990s and the AIDS statistics are not good. It is now known that such world-known figures as Freddie Mercury, Gia Carangi and Anthony Perkins all died in the late 1980s/early 1990s from AIDS-related complications, and the ACT UP-Paris group is pressured to act seeing their friends and members dying left and right. The sense of speed of the events unfolding is stressed through intentionally chaotic camera-work and the punchy music. Parallels are even drawn with the French Revolution, and when members of ACT UP-Paris are not advocating for the rights of others, they party their sorrows away at night-clubs.

The bigger story of trying to get the government and pharmaceutical companies to react plays in parallel with a personal story involving Nathan and Sean who develop a romantic attraction for each other. Sean is struggling with his diagnosis and his prognosis worries Nathan. In that way, the personal messages of health and living, love and death all are touched upon, while eloquent and logic debates (French forte) are ongoing on cold, scientific terminology and the general chances of survival. The contrast is felt, but sometimes these debates held by the group get slightly tedious to watch and the polarising views and debates inside the organisation sit uncomfortably with the “sexy” personal whisperings on the topic of beautiful beaches and the members’ personal histories. The film does become very emotional at the end, but the film’s last twenty minutes are also too overdrawn to be effective. 

165968197The documentary-like feature of 120 BPM makes the film instantly appealing, and it is great the film does not shy away from portraying the worst, accentuating the anger, the despair, the suffering and the frustration of the members of the organisation and AIDS sufferers. Its characters are not some superheroes, but ordinary people who want to survive and live in the world where there is no indifference, stigmatisation and preventable loss of lives. If you can forgive the film’s excessive length and its indulgence towards the end, you may find the film satisfying since its message is on par with the universality of human suffering and also of human efforts to put matters right. 


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