120 BPM is set in Paris in the 80’s during the height of misunderstanding of the AIDS virus and my goodness does it make you feel ALIVE with a capital A.
ACTUP were an organisation based on the New York AIDS activist group who demanded better medical research and transparency in AIDS research as, the word of Richard Ashcroft, the drugs don’t work. Directed by Robin Campillo, screenwriter of Class, the film is urgent and entirely infused with life but this is side by side with tragedy, loss and through it all is the unquenchable fire of youth and passion. The ensemble cast are exemplary and it is directed with vitality and assured confidence by Campillo.
The film opens with an event that has got out of hand at a political debate, some (fake) blood was thrown and a politician ended up being handcuffed to a post. Here’s where we begin to see differing factions within the group, some (the ones with less T4 cells) want more urgent results. Enough talk. More action. Others don’t want to be ultra violent. Among the agent provocateurs is Sean played wonderfully by the hypnotic Nahuel Pérez Biscayart and it is Sean’s love affair with newcomer and HIV Negative Nathan (also excellent Arnaud Valois) that the film shifts its attention to. We learn that Sean was I infected the first time he had sex, by his maths teacher when he was sixteen. Nathan is appalled, surely the maths teacher is responsible but Sean replies everyone is responsible, everyone must be aware. There is a tender, beautiful and heart wrenching sex scene between Nathan and Sean and indeed their relationship is the human heart of 120 BPM.
120 BPM focuses on the gay community predominantly as that is what makes up most of the group but amongst them is also a young boy who had been injected with tainted blood. The group doesn’t just focus on gay men but women, prostitutes, drug addicts, the people that society doesn’t feel sorry for – they brought it on themselves didn’t they? A great example of what they were up against even within their own community is when two guys are fly posting and they get abused by gay men saying ‘stop killing our buzz, stop scaring us’. The next scene depicts a beautiful young man dead in hospital at the age of 26. AIDS was treated despicably in France and many other countries and I doubt you will be able to watch this film without feeling angry.
Campillo interjects the film with scenes of utter joy, nightclubs and dancing and gay pride. It’s a roller coaster of emotion. On the train after an attack at the pharmaceutical company that is being difficult Sean gives a whimsical speech about the fleeting nature of life; the fact that now with death imminent colours seem more rich, the sky more beautiful. He then completely undermines it by stating it was a joke and they all laugh. Joke or not it is impossible to not get caught up in his speech and to feel the pain of all these beautiful young lives hanging in the balance of rich Big Pharma.
120 BPM is life itself, an important and engaging film and one of my absolute highlights.