120 Beats Per Minute Review

The Frontline War Against AIDS


ACT UP-Paris is the highly organised group of gay Parisian activists and devotees to the global movement of the same name, that is more concerned with direct, disruptive action than the rainbow marches of gay pride.

The group’s members are young, gay, mostly male, mostly HIV positive—‘poz’—political and enraged by the state’s disregard for the epidemic that is slowly killing them.

They meet in an auditorium every Tuesday evening to debate and strategise. Applauding is not allowed because it eats into precious planning time; they click their fingers to show approval and hiss for disapproval. Smoking in the auditorium isn’t allowed. Smoking in the hallway is ok, but debating in the hallway is not. All discussion must happen in front of the rest of the group and be debated accordingly.

Director Robin Campillo (The Returned (TV), Planetarium) has taken his personal experiences with ACT UP-Paris and made the group’s story into a modern queer classic. Campillo focuses on a particular moment in the group’s uprising, drawing drama from the internal struggles and heartbreak of its members while the group’s collective efforts to lobby a negligent pharmaceutical corporation begin to pay off.

Where other directors may have opted to track the group’s successes over a number of years, Campillo carefully avoids filling great lengths of time with tenuous storylines. Instead, he chooses to let the audience vicariously live the group’s setbacks and euphoria in granular peaks and troughs.

120 Beats per Minute is a pulsating story from the frontline of the war against AIDS.

The central narrative follows one of the group’s newest members, Nathan, Arnaud Valois (A French Gigolo, Charlie Says), and one of its most ambitious and outspoken, Sean, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart (Glue, All Yours). Sexual relationships within the group are generally open and fluid, so when Sean floats from the arms of his lover into Nathan’s, very little is made of the fact.

All of the individual performances make worthy homages to the renegades of ACT UP. Arnaud Valois and Nahuel Pérez Biscayart in particular, though, give a spectacular show of passion and fervour. Their names are far from household in the UK, but you can be quite sure that this will be the film that defines their careers.

As a poz and a neg respectively, Sean and Nathan share stories of coming out, virginity and infection. Respectfully, the film devotes a great deal of time to discussing vaccines, prevention and ways the virus manifests.

Inside their DIY war room, the group go fiercely back and forth with one another, but at night, they smoke and drink on dreamlike dancefloors. They are a clan of crewcuts and earrings moving to pounding dance music. An Arnaud Rebotini remix of Bronski Beats’ Smalltown Boy is the score’s showstopper.

You’ll want to dance and you’ll want to cry. That’s probably how it would have felt as a part of the young, defiant, gay liberation movement in the late 80s.

Bravo, Robin Campillo. Bravo.

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