120 BPM (Beats per Minute)

 

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A social document and a love story built around the advocacy group ACT UP-Paris in the 1990s.

   120 Beats per Minute  

This deeply personal and remarkable film is the work of Robin Campillo, the French scriptwriter who has frequently collaborated on the films of Laurent Cantet. It was Campillo's second feature as a director, 2013's Eastern Boys, that brought him to our attention in that capacity and now we have this new piece acclaimed last year at Cannes on which he is both director and writer (the latter being in conjunction with Philippe Mangeot).

 

What we have here is a work with two distinct aspects. Most descriptions of the film have quite reasonably stressed the fact that it centres on the activists of ACT UP-Paris in the early 1990s and that note is struck at once. The film's opening is a masterstroke of directness as four newcomers to this group are given a résumé of what the organisation stands for and this address is delivered straight to camera - that is to say to us. As the film proceeds, we witness many meetings of this activist body and see them in action. That action involves several strands such as protesting against governmental failure to handle the Aids crisis adequately, calling out the pharmaceutical companies which are pursuing their own advantage and promoting wider publicity for safe sex. Conflicting viewpoints expressed at ACT UP meetings are authentically portrayed and so natural are the players that, while everything here is enacted, the film feels akin to the most vivid of documentaries.

 

The urgency and immediacy conveyed count for a lot, but minor doubts arise nevertheless. At 144 minutes, the film is long and sometimes feels it, not least when the authenticity involves talk of somewhat technical matters such as a protease indicator, a new molecule and T4s. Such aspects may render this a film somewhat specialised in its appeal but, if this side of 120 Beats per Minute carries limitations, it is exceptional in the impact of the love story which emerges as the film progresses. In a sense this is present simply as a representative tale of these times, but the emotional power generated by the two leading actors here is quite remarkable. Arnaud Valois is Nathan, a newcomer to the group and in the minority in being HIV-negative. Nevertheless, he becomes the partner of a founder member, Sean, whose death cannot be long delayed. Nahuel Pérez Biscayart who plays Sean gives a remarkable performance, one certain to be among the finest to be seen this year.

 

Although these two players stand out in a fine cast, it is Campillo's triumph that his film in telling the story of Sean and Nathan is able to express the view - surely his own - that whatever the sexuality involved sex is a natural appetite vital to a full life. It is, perhaps, a consequence of that belief that the film's most explicit sexual moments are deeply expressive of love. Emerging through the personal story told here, this aspect makes the film special and it supports rather than hinders the historical narrative in which it is set. Far from feeling that the actions of ACT UP-Paris in the 1990s are now part of a past history that does not require to be revisited, we sense the opposite. The individual drama so movingly portrayed poignantly brings out the wider need not to lose sight of the tragedy and bravery of the years when the Aids crisis was at its worst and to remember those - both the dead and the survivors - who fought back so remarkably.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Arnaud Valois, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Adèle Haenel, Antoine Reinartz, Félix Maritaud, Ariel Borenstein, Aloïse Sauvage, Saadia Bentaïeb, Médhi Touré, Catherine Vinatier, Théophile Ray, Saadia Bentaïeb.

 

Dir Robin Campillo, Pro Hugues Charbonneau and Marie-Ange Luciani, Screenplay Robin Campillo with Philippe Mangeot, Ph Jeanne Lapoirie, Pro Des Emmanuelle Duplay, Ed Robin Campillo, Stéphanie Léger and Anita Roth, Music Arnaud Rebotini, Costumes Isabelle Pannetier.

  
Les Films de Pierre/France 3 Cinéma/Page 114/Memento Films-Curzon Artificial Eye.
143 mins. France. 2017. Rel: 6 April 2018. Cert. 15.