Smoking, sex, protests, death… that’s right, there’s a new French film out!
Set in the early ’90s but looking contemporary (as opposed to Call Me By Your Name which was set in the ’80s but looked like the ’50s), 120 BPM follows the Paris chapter of ACT UP (a real-life AIDS advocacy group) in their creative activism designed to educate the gay community, lobby inert politicians and battle pharmaceutical companies (using balloons filled with fake blood). Their heated debates about what tone to strike will be familiar to anyone who’s been involved in a campaigning group, discussing whether to spread joy or show the harsh realities of HIV. 120 BPM does both.
The blood may be fake but the emotions are real. This is thanks to a variety of lifelike characters, particularly Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), all portrayed with a natural warmth that makes it easy to invest in the sensitive, impassioned drama. Although a little long at 150 minutes, 120 BPM fizzes with life and humanity, mixing pulsing dance scenes with equally invigorating activism and relationships (the name alludes to music and heartbeats simultaneously). The movie’s balance between the personal and political demonstrates their sameness, as neglect by the state turns people’s lifestyles into death sentences.
While stirringly realistic throughout, Robin Campillo (who was an active member of the group) throws in just enough directorial flourishes to echo the creativity of ACT UP. Like them he pulls no punches, and the impact resonates socially and emotionally. Vital and visceral, 120 BPM is a moving celebration of the essential work by young campaigners to save lives when theirs were ending, due to a profound abrogation of responsibility by people in positions of power. Told you it looked contemporary.