THE activities of a real-life AIDS-activist group in 1990s Paris are the focus point for 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute), a work as honest as it is hard-hitting which won both the Grand Prix at Cannes and the Cesar for Best Film.
When the film begins, we see the members of ACT UP discussing the events from a previous protest at a medical conference which saw a speaker splattered with a balloon containing fake blood, courtesy of one of the group.
The same meeting sees them discuss their next protest, which involves storming the offices of a pharmaceutical company that delays publication of HIV trial results and using their newest tactic of spreading fake blood.
While the group continue mixing dialogue with more protests, focus is given to various characters, mainly HIV-positive Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) who begins a relationship with a new member of the group Nathan (Arnaud Valois) despite him being HIV-negative.
What is then seen is the professional and private lives of these young lives interweaving as love, identity, humour, determination and death are depicted with unrestrained effect.
The film’s director Robin Campillo, who was a member of ACT UP, is known primarily for scriptwriting having penned eye-catching films with diverse themes like the unemployment drama Time Out and the inner-city school drama The Class.
Alongside his last effort as a director, the immigration-themed romance Eastern Boys, he has proven well-equipped at handling social issues and this devastating work clarifies that with its ability to demand attention and provoke thought.
The film works best when observing the professional side of the group’s members, notably through their protests or when discussing or even arguing with each other in their weekly meetings. In the latter, Campillo gives his actors space to express their views in packed lecture rooms detailing the differences in opinion on various issues and directed handheld with a documentary-like feel to it.
Outside of the lecture rooms which are often the settings for shouting matches, the depiction of the protests themselves are performed and directed with compulsive effect, notably in the offices of their company nemesis Melton Pharm.
As walls and windows are decorated with fake blood, the protestors respond furiously to the understandings from the employees, including a doctor, that they are croaking. Describing themselves as sick and non-violent make them approachable for their cause and though the behaviour at times is unorthodox, these protestors prove themselves as heroes for their time, fighting for their rights to life. Such is the effect that they have on the company, the protestors eventually end up exchanging dialogue in a more diplomatic manner with the company, arguably outsmarting the older and experienced professionals in the process.
The opening scenes intersperse with the first protest and provide evidence of the movement standing up for those seemingly ignored by Mitterrand’s France. With statistics mentioned, the professional appears so defensive that when splattered with fake blood and handcuffed in a somewhat comic misunderstanding, much to the leader’s surprise and divisiveness among other protestors, it is difficult to criticise ACT UP.
Crucial to these occasions is one of the leaders Sophie, played with utter believability by Adele Haenel. Combining blunt honesty with sarcasm and affection, she takes possession of each scene she is in and proving her case as a likely future great of French cinema, capable of playing both leading and supporting.
As with previous films that depict AIDS with brutal honesty such as Les Nuits Fauves (Savage Nights), Philadelphia or Andre Techine’s The Witnesses, the journeys of certain characters appear inevitable. We observe how AIDS does not prevent characters doing ordinary things such as socialising and sex, before the horrors of the illness play out in the final third and show us the bleak realities.
In one scene, a character receives a letter confirming they have been awarded an allowance for being handicapped, breaking down upon receiving it. This reaction is summed up when thinking about the contrast in appearance shown beforehand, an energetic, lively and youthful individual stripped away of dignity and promise by an illness he believes those higher up are not doing enough against.
This may make the film predictable in that sense, but with the sensitivity Campillo brings, it is forgivable because of moments of emotionally powerful and fine acting it results in, particularly in a late scene by Valois.
The character of Nathan is also responsible for one of the film’s more memorable scenes when during a conversation with Sean, he tells of how he encountered a man he loved after the epidemic started and didn’t see him again after that night. He then mentions how a phone call with his father strongly implied the reason for his hospitalization and upon hanging up assumed the worst, never seeking the facts. This type of scene is critical to displaying a backstory to a character who, despite being healthy, is connected in some way to the disease, performed expertly by Valois likely the film’s strongest performer.
Judging by the final scenes, amongst the moving honesty, there lies evidence that irrespective, love prevails and the fight goes on. The characters that spend two and a half hours with us are all expertly played by a cast of mostly young actors who, under a competent director like Robin Campillo, each inspire in a film that deftly pays tribute to those affected by AIDS, as well as to the young in general.