Pihla Pekkarinen and Emma Davis review 2017 Grand Prix-awarded French drama.
120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) draws on the highly personal experiences of writer/director Robin Campillo and translates those experiences onto the screen with grace and dignity. At the film’s premiere at Cannes Film Festival, Campillo remembered his time as an ACT UP “militant” before grabbing the Grand Prix for this moving yet politically charged piece on AIDS activism. For the current generation, this film comes as an important reminder of one of the most painful chapters of LGBT+ history, elevating those stories to a worthy level of cinematic achievement.
120 Battements Par Minute, or BPM (Beats Per Minute), or 120 BPM, has as many plot lines as it has titles. Set in 1990s Paris, the film is a glimpse into the HIV epidemic plaguing France. At its heart lies ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), an activist group dedicated to spreading awareness of HIV prevention and campaigning for open and accessible AIDS treatment. The story is told from the perspective of Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a HIV negative ACT UP newbie who falls in love with Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), one of the long-time members of the advocacy group. He guides us through the film as we meet characters upon characters, each with their own individual stories but united by their dedication to AIDS activism.
Beats Per Minute seems an accurate title for the film – it projects life, its heartbeat reaches beyond the screen, and is felt by its audience. This is true of the plot also; BPM is not so much a story as it is an entity, incorporating all aspects of life with no clear narrative arc. The film is about ACT UP, but it is also about AIDS, activism, youth, love, sex, and a million other things. This can feel disturbing at times, but it matches the naturalistic style the film clings to. Beats Per Minute has a strong heartbeat, palpable as we move through the various vignette-like scenes and necessary to create cohesiveness within them. With its documentary-like plot, fragmented edits, and naturalistic cinematography, BPM is a quintessential French New Wave film, fully confident and comfortable within its genre.
However, by the final hour, its stylistic elements have peaked and the film descends into an overly long dénouement as the various aspects of the plot are hastily and incoherently concluded. The actual ending of the film was undermined by the inexplicable presence of what felt like five alternate endings, with beautiful pans and zooms of a blood-coloured Seine or a staged lie-in outside the Parliament. All of these beautifully composed, balanced shots feel like endings, but the film carries on until it has exhausted all of its ideas. Even the actual finale of the film is not one ending, but three, awkwardly alternating between a club scene, a sex scene and a protest scene. The 140-minute film feels as though it should be 45 minutes shorter, but there is no single scene or plot line which you can point to which should have been cut. The attitude of “more, more, more” which BPM revels in makes it beautiful and unique, but also occasionally drawn out and exhausting.
The ensemble dominates the film, reflecting the themes of solidarity and unity. The various characters appear sporadically within the framework of the weekly ACT UP meetings, and their backstories are brought in through anecdotes and emotional pleas. However, there is a startling contrast between the vibrant personalities of the activists and their lack of significance as characters. The audience is not given the chance to know many of them, even our protagonists, as individuals. The characters are rather defined by the energy they bring to the film as a collective, an energy that counters the slow and evidence-driven response from the pharmaceutical company. The film eventually morphs into the love story between two activists, Nathan and Sean, a passionate whirlwind of a relationship defying the bleakness of Sean’s deteriorating health. But again, their characters remain somewhat underdeveloped. We learn about Sean’s family and history beyond the outspoken radical, but Nathan remains (at most) a link between ACT UP and Sean’s sickness.
In line with the organisation’s aim to speak up for the oppressed, the film is unafraid to show the intersectionality of those affected by the virus. A transgender attendee inquires about medication affecting hormonal transition. A deaf member contributes to a meeting’s discussion through an interpreter. The largely young and white activists demand action for prostitutes, drug addicts and immigrants. And a single mother’s right to speak up for herself and her haemophilic mixed-race son is respected. ACT UP members represent a wide spectrum of Parisian society, discarding any stereotypes of HIV victims and thereby defining the AIDS crisis as a national problem.
While the film is drawn out and convoluted at times, its overall beauty and empowering message are indisputable. It provides representation in an industry where it is sorely lacking, and it should be commended for its explicit effort to merge the marginalised with the mainstream.
120 BPM is out now in UK cinemas. Watch the trailer: