120 Beats per Minute – passionate and defiant account of 80s Aids activism
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120 Beats per Minute review – passionate and defiant account of 80s Aids activism

Robin Campillo commemorates the legacy of direct-action group ACT UP with a movie that is tragic, urgent and full of cinematic life

 The Guardian – Saturday 20 May

Robin Campillo’s 120 Battements Par Minute is a passionately acted ensemble movie about ACT UP in France in the late 80s, the confrontational direct-action movement which demanded immediate, large-scale research into Aids. The movie compellingly combines elegy, tragedy, urgency and a defiant euphoria.

Campillo, the screenwriter and film-maker who scripted Laurent Cantet’s 2008 Palme-winning The Class, here writes and directs. He commemorates the experience and comradeship of ACT UP as a kind of life during wartime and a radical moment comparable to 1848, although 1968 is probably the closer parallel.

Long before the invention of the term “woke”, the ACT UP goal was to rouse the gay community from fatalism and torpor – and strike back against the hostile complacency of the political and Big Pharma establishment who believed that this was not an emergency that concerned them, not an emergency at all, in fact.

This middle-aged establishment were also deeply irritated at young people presuming to tell them what to do. And there were many who believed that the conventions of compassion did not apply to gay people with HIV, and that the gay community’s unashamed celebration of pleasure meant that their suffering was deserved. It was a punitive logic and theology that did certainly did not apply to straight smokers and drinkers in hospital. (Without comment, but with tacit humour Campillo incidentally allows us to absorb the irony of campaigners demanding more medical information who keep going outside for cigarette breaks.)

It’s a compelling feature about love, life and friendship which can be compared to David France’s 2012 documentary How To Survive A Plague, about ACT UP in the United States. As a fictional representation, it sometimes looks like a politicised, if de-romanticised, version of something like Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is The Warmest Colour, from 2013.

The movie is sited within the predominantly male world of ACT UP, gay people who are mostly HIV-positive, campaigners who have evolved a ritualistic method of debating their strategy, because time, like life, is short – with the “time out” sign for curtailing long speeches and finger-clicking instead of applause. The movie begins with a catastrophe: the campaigners have disrupted a medical convention by throwing fake blood at a speaker and even handcuffing him to a post. It is a terrible moment of indiscipline and misjudgment which allows them to be represented as violent. Bad publicity.

And yet ACT UP believes in this borderline transgressive act: throwing fake blood at objects, causing certain amounts of material damage to property, but mainly causing astonishment and disruption, because it is the only thing that stirs things up. Fake blood is indeed creepy, and there is an amusing moment when the recipe for making it in the bath is discussed. It is an image which is to recur in a somewhat Shakespearean dream of sadness in which the Seine has turned red. And these tactics get them to the conference table; the politicians and suits have to deal with ACT UP, who have forced the issue and accelerated the dispersal of information and research in a way that would have been impossible without them. Campillo’s movie reflects all this.

Among the campaigners, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart plays Sean, a wiry, smart, lippy guy who sits at the back, speaking out, challenging things that seem wrong, always in the vanguard of the action and never dismayed. Nathan (Arnaud Valois) is a quieter guy who is HIV-negative, and very attracted to Sean. Adèle Haenel plays Sophie, an exasperated organiser, and Antoine Reinartz is Thibault, someone whose authority in the group causes tensions in the group dynamic.

The movie follows them, and their hyper-alert guerrilla existence of busting into corporate offices and causing ructions while the employees look on in paralysed dismay. They are, in fact, a little creepy in these moments: a film-maker like Bertrand Bonello or early Haneke might have revelled in their icy anonymity. But they are here for a purpose and are soon ejected. Campillo does not, in fact, show them in confrontation with the police, or show the long hours in the cells after every protest-stunt. He is more interested in their lives before and after action.

And it is demanding – almost vocational. At one stage, Campillo shows Nathan asking Sean what everyone there does for a living, when they’re not campaigning – what are they in civilian life? The question is unexpected, even disloyal. They are focused on the cause. But the growing relationship between Nathan and Sean is the thread that runs through the drama, giving it an emotional direction and definition.

Sean has what is possibly the movie’s key speech. In the afterglow of what has been a successful protest, they are all heading home on the Metro and he is talking about how the nearness of death has intensified his appreciation of life. In that moment, the city seen from the train window suddenly looks beautiful with a New Wave splendour. Paris belongs to them, as Jacques Rivette might have said. But then Sean shrugs and grins. He was kidding: that sort of maudlin sentimental nonsense doesn’t help their cause. Of course it doesn’t. And yet part of the extraordinary power that the ACT UP campaign is increasingly assuming in cultural history is that it was something that valued life, and but also made people think about death – the last taboo. It made staring into the sun not merely possible but necessary. For most people in their twenties, death is just a rumour. For the gay generation of the 80s and for ACT UP, mortality, illness and bereavement were facts they had to confront, without help from the agencies of the state.

This film has what its title implies: a heartbeat. It is full of cinematic life.