Film of the week: 120 BPM is an enthralling, devastating call to action

Robin Campillo’s superb story of Aids activists in the 1990s is more than just a revelatory period piece – it’s a celebration of sex, dance and the invigorating value of collective resistance.

One of Sight & Sound’s best films of 2018.

Ben Walters

from our May 2018 issue

120 Beats Per Minute (2017)

“The unthinkable has happened: people who yesterday were considered dead have come back.” So says the mayor in Les Revenants (2004), Robin Campillo’s unnerving debut feature, in which the deceased of a French town return to life and… just sort of hang around, unsure what to do, unsure what can be done, queering the complacent order around them.

Campillo has spoken of how the project was informed by his personal experience of the HIV/Aids crisis during the 1980s, a time when he and many others, in Campillo’s words, “withdrew from life” in the face of a horror belittled, weaponised or ignored by mainstream society. Campillo was reinvigorated when he joined the French chapter of the HIV/Aids activist group Act Up in 1992. In 120 BPM, he revisits the period, and the move from uncertainty to agency that it represents, to compellingly imaginative, interrogative and illuminating effect.

Like the US-centred documentaries How to Survive a Plague (2012) and United in Anger (2012), the film focuses on Act Up and engages with the struggle for access to better medical treatment. But 120 BPM doesn’t make that struggle, and its hopeful eventual resolution, its narrative spine. Nor, although a couple’s relationship is at its heart, does it present paired romance as an adequate or desirable alternative to wider, queerer networks of feeling, understanding and behaving. It is a collective story about collective action, willing to sit with dissensus, ambiguity and irresolution, and all the more enthralling and devastating for it. As a period piece, it’s revelatory. As a call to arms, it’s galvanising.

BPM (120 battements par minute, 2017)

Set over a couple of years in the early 1990s, 120 BPM follows a dozen or so core members of Parisian Act Up as they plan and execute a range of actions and interventions, from dishing out sex education in schools to apparently turning the Seine blood-red. The last is a formidable feat of poetic licence on the part of Campillo, who has fictionalised his own experiences throughout. The group’s calculatedly spectacular activism could have played out as something like a spy procedural, but it doesn’t. The activists’ interventions are wry and scrappy, quite glorious when they land, somewhat absurd when they don’t.

The real tension doesn’t involve, say, encounters with police, but rather the dialectic of the group’s weekly meetings, in a starkly lit civic amphitheatre where ideas and assumptions collide to throw sparks, and sometimes draw blood, in the spirit of a righteous shared enterprise. The superb ensemble are particularly compelling in these scenes, where the personal and political cannot be separated. (Campillo also wrote the script for Laurent Cantet’s comparably discursive The Class, 2008.) Disagreement hovers around almost every tactic weighed (whether to engage with drug companies, whether to mobilise the bodies of the dead and dying), ambiguity or surprise around almost every response met (the teacher who welcomes the invasion of her classroom, the cruisers who resent Aids-awareness posters on their patch). Principled action is valorised regardless of its local outcome. There’s an insistence on the invigorating effects of agency in abjection.

120 Beats Per Minute (2017)

Activism cannot be separated from dancing here, or from sex. 120 BPM’s sex scenes are extraordinary vignettes of bodies and selves reaching for shared pleasure, anxiety and weakness countered by humour and desire. The film richly conveys a range of other ecstasies too: bodies on a dance floor, moving in joy, surrounded by molecular harbingers of death; bodies on MDMA, flushed with empathy and appreciation, finding heaven in public disorder; bodies dying, machinery painfully packing up, people impossibly, unforgivably gone. Notably, the institution of being a couple – the relationship between Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and Nathan (Arnaud Valois) comes to take centre stage – is presented not as a nirvana, an advert for monogamous co-dependence or personal self-realisation, but as a fluid experiment in hope and happiness.

Other normative institutions are also disarmingly queered in ways that sidestep stereotypical antagonisms. Domesticity appears not as the proper site of intimacy or as a stifling hell, but as a contingently useful technology of care. Biological family appears not as the only real kinship or as an oppressive trap, but as a largely deferential source of support. Wage work appears not as an avatar of status or wealth, nor as a miserable obligation, but as a kind of grotesque joke.

120 BPM understands that conflict is not abuse and that comrades need not be friends. It immerses us in tangled lives of passion and anger on their own terms of tenderness, frustration, charisma, mess, pride, fury, pain, laughter, intimacy and bitterness. It’s a film about fragility – the fragility of the body, the fragility of the collective, the fragility of the beat – and it suggests that only by attending fiercely to the fragile can we find our way to love.



In the May 2018 issue of Sight & Sound

The body politic

A love story set amid the life-and-death struggles of Aids activists fighting pharmaceutical giants in France in the early 1990s, Robin Campillo’s engrossing 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) is a moving tribute to a generation of gay campaigners. By Roger Clarke.

+ How to dramatise a plague: a brief history of Aids on screen

The realities of Aids were ignored by mainstream culture in the early years of the virus, but little by little, film and TV have learned to be honest about life and death in the HIV age. By Simon McCallum.


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  • Sight & Sound: the May 2018 issue

    Sight & Sound: the May 2018 issue

    120 BPM salutes the courageous Aids activists of the early 90s. Plus runaway British indie directors, Beast, Lean on Pete, Woodfall Films, Western...

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