K E Y P O I N T S
- ’120 BPM’ was the winner of 2017 Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix.
- The subtitled French drama follows the AIDS activist group ACT-UP in 1990s Paris.
- Neither of the two lead stars - Nahuel Pérez Biscayart or Arnaud Valois - had any knowledge of the ACT-UP movement prior to auditioning.
- Arnaud Valois had given up on an acting a career and had moved to Thailand to be a massage therapist when he was discovered by chance on Facebook by director Robin Campillo who was looking for people with a ‘90s look’.
- Campillo used only gay actors as he “was trying to hear the music of the voices and the debates, and that was connected to the fact that people were gay”.
S N A P V E R D I C T
On paper, a subtitled French film about AIDS activism clocking in at almost two and a half hours might seem niche, but in a world where making your voice heard has never been more necessary, ’120 Beats Per Minute’ couldn’t have been better timed.
The film follows the Paris chapter of the ACT-UP activist group in 1990s France. The group demanded immediate, large-scale research into AIDS by seemingly uninterested and complacent governments and pharmaceutical companies as the death toll continued to rise. Their methods were not subtle, favouring bold and confrontational - but non-violent - direct action.
The film opens with the group infiltrating a medical conference and culminates in one of the speakers being hit in the face with a balloon containing fake blood. It’s a startling moment that sets the scene for a truly absorbing film.
From the off, we’re introduced to a wide range of characters, the passionate - and sick - campaigners who regularly meet to debate their next moves. It has an urgent, fly-on-the-wall feel, testament not only to Robin Campillo’s direction, but also to the cast’s natural performances.
At the heart of the film is the unfolding love story between mouthy, smart, HIV positive Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and quieter, HIV negative Nathan (Arnaud Valois). We share their hopes, their struggles and, at times, their bed. It’s heavy going throughout, but lighter touches - when the group go dancing; when they cheerlead their way through a Pride event - humanise the story further and the cinematic flourishes - dusk particles in a club morphing into a microscopic view of the HIV virus; the dreamlike sequence that sees the Seine turn blood red - break up the lengthy debate scenes.
As the inevitable final scenes unfold, the heartbreak is almost too much to bear for both those on screen and us watching from the stalls, and a poignant reminder of what they were fighting for.
T A K E H O M E M E S S A G E
In a day and age of unprecedented rights for the LGBTQ+ community as well as effective treatment for HIV, this is an important film that serves as a stark reminder of those who fought for much of the life many of us now live.