Like the house music it alludes to in the title, 120 BPM goes on for too long. But within it there are moments of inspiration, glimmers of perception and instances of pure ecstasy. It is a shame that most of these occur within the opening act, although an excellent ensemble cast keep the tensions and camaraderie simmering for the duration.
Robin Campillo’s latest film starts excitingly, as it probes the various politics and motivations of the ACT UP AIDs advocacy movement, of which the director himself was once a part. The members demonstrate at a conference, with the resulting aggression and violence highlighting the fault lines between militancy and protest, inadequacy and action. They meet soon after in a large amphitheatre, or a converted lecture hall, to debate the merits of their methods. These are testy, confrontational affairs, despite the regulations of no claps, only clicks, and allotted periods for speaking. This group is not messing about, and the immediacy extends to the film’s overall urgency. It is easy to dilute the horror of the HIV epidemic decades later, but Campillo shows simply that large numbers of young gay men were ill and that many were dying. The necessity for these people to come together to form some resistance is crystallised in such circumstances. Most of their efforts are spent on public awareness – one excellent scene shows them infiltrate a school with leaflets. The male teacher in one class vainly attempts to collect up the contraband, while a female teacher next door asks the children to sit quietly and listen to the important message. The pervasive ignorance of some remains startling. Campillo cleverly lets the protagonists emerge slowly out of the wider group. Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a handsome, taciturn newcomer, falls for Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a bug-eyed, gaunt, rebellious extrovert. Their intimacy becomes the film’s emotional centre, as the group increases its extravagant attempts to pressure large pharmaceutical companies for help with medical treatment.
The scenes where members of the movement confront Big Pharma are probably the weakest, and the movie struggles to locate a satisfactory finish. One sour point is Campillo’s lack of use for Adèle Haenel, always an interesting actor, who plays a group organiser called Sophie. She is sidelined as the male relationships come to the fore and her character is criminally underdeveloped. Antoine Reinartz gives a stunningly complex performance, however, playing the group’s divisive chairman, Thibault. In sum, there are many superb performances, some interesting visual flourishes and several flashes of witty dialogue, but this film required greater narrative focus and fiercer editing.
Joseph Owen Photo: Céline Nieszawer
120 Battements par Minute (120 Beats per Minute) does not have a UK release date yet.
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Watch the trailer for 120 Battements par Minute (120 Beats per Minute here: