Cannes 2017 Review: 120 Beats Per Minute (BPM)
It is important that I get this right because everything Robin Campillo has done here matters so much to the community that I belong to. I don’t know a single queer person from Generation X that the AIDS epidemic didn’t touch. Growing up as a homosexual I have always heard from those older than me that they’ve all watched at least one friend die from the disease. This isn’t my story by any means, but it clearly is Robin Campillo’s and that makes 120 Beats per Minute incredibly personal and realized in its loss. For many, the film will serve as a horror movie above anything. What Campillo has created is so much more than vital, it is a socially conscious masterpiece that doesn’t dilute the terrifying tragedy of the AIDS epidemic while fortifying the voices of the militant queer.
Campillo knows that combatants well. He was an activist with ACT UP, a radical awareness group that fought adversaries like the close-minded, the Francois Mitterand-led government and close-mindedness. BPM crawls inside of the Paris faction of ACT UP in the earlier 90s when life-saving medication was right around the corner, unbeknownst and unhelpful for those already suffering from the pandemic. ACT UP’s methods to get their voice out are marked with nonviolence but boldness — they interrupt classrooms, toss balloons of fake blood and distribute clean syringes.
The film opens with an ACT UP meeting that has transpired into an argument about the group’s methods. Some members took things too far while disrupting a fundraiser and the room is divided on those results. The thin, dorky leader of the group, Thibault (Antoine Reinarts), who is bold in his sexual advances but isn’t as forthcoming in his sexuality, finds himself at odds with Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). Sean represents the more extreme, brazen side of ACT UP — he is quick to action and volunteers for every revolt. He quickly falls for Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a new member of the group. The connection between them drives the back half of the film and provides the heartbeat of the movie against the more enthralling actions of protest from ACT UP.
A clear lead performance doesn’t break out until the second half of the movie as Sean’s condition deteriorates. The film starts as an ensemble piece and each person’s motives for protest becomes apparent. A lot of the supporting cast doesn’t get the treatment of being fully realized. The most notable members are the severe Sophie (played by rising star Adèle Haenel), history aficionado Jeremie (Ariel Borenstein), fetishy Marco (Theophile Ray) and his supportive mother Helene (Catherine Vinatier). However, each character is very distinct in their features, desires and actions. They might not be realized with a full history, but they are all important pieces in the story. It is a true ensemble led by a group dynamic, which helps keep the many scenes of ACT UP meetings exciting. Everyone has different reasons for fighting and the stakes are different for everyone, so the passionate arguments feel well earned.
Of the more prevalent roles, Biscayart performance is the most affecting and important. Sean is a vital member of the organization and forthright in his queerness. Biscayart plays him with fortitude, courage and humanity. He is the type of person that all queer people can look up to, someone that gets up after they’ve been knocked down. There are dimensions that are brought to the character that could’ve been missed with other actors. Biscayart makes Sean an individual that embraces his contradictions. He plays him as someone who is resilient and vulnerable, but not always at the right time. It’s an inspiring performance that makes a case for the beauty in imperfection.
Just like the characters, Campillo’s direction is very diverse and ranges from tender to livid. The scenes of protest are reminiscent of last year’s high-energy Nocturama by french contemporary Bertrand Bonello. Although the subject matters are at odds (Bonello’s film deals with a group of domestic terrorists), the presentation is similar, especially in the scenes where the ACT UP members decompress in the clubs. When ACT UP storms a pharma company protesting, chanting and vandalizing is when Campillo displays his most vitriol filmmaking. He uses a handheld camera to put the audience on the front lines of the fight.
The softer moments are equally as impressive and affecting. 120 Beats per Minute instantly has one of the most beautiful homosexual sex scenes — it isn’t voyeuristic in the least while being intimate and sexy. These scenes couldn’t have come to life if it weren’t for the touch of a queer man. The detail to the sexuality may draw comparisons to Blue is the Warmest Color, but there is no hint of directorial curiosity or exploitation here. It is sex presented in a matter of fact way, complete with prowess, awkwardness and honesty. This isn’t something queer people see on the screen often.
Of course, no amount of beauty can masquerade the tragedies. 120 Beats per Minute is a fatalistic movie — no, AIDS is a fatalistic disease. What Campillo has crafted is deeply humanistic, but it isn’t apologetic for anything and there isn’t relief by the end. For the members of ACT UP, death has become a routine however, they keep fighting. For them, the only thing more threatening than depleting white blood cells is complacency. In that way, this is a movie about heroism and it’ll serve to inspire those who have been handed life’s share of unfairness.
But, it isn’t hopeful. It’s a cycle. Be heard before it is too late.