120 Beats Per Minute is a love story set against the backdrop of AIDS activism in the 80s and 90s. Inevitably, it’s also a tragedy. The film invites us into a world of youthful, energetic protest, packed with optimism, tension and sorrow, with director Robin Campillo’s bringing his own experiences to bear on what feels like an utterly authentic portrayal of modern protest.
The film focuses on the activism of ACT UP (The Aids Coalition to Unleash Power), telling an ensemble story about the people who took on an establishment they saw as indifferent to their plight. Campillo’s takes a realist approach to his storytelling. Handheld camerawork features prominently and the sound design is claustrophobic and intimate, from the interspersed breathing of lovers to the strained breaths of a dying victim.
An overtly 80s aesthetic is avoided until late on in proceedings when one character hands another a tape cassette, but this somehow doesn’t detract from the sense of veracity. The film maintains its immediacy and, despite it’s realism, Campillo pulls off ambitious cinematic sequences. At one point the dramatic vision of the Seine turned blood red in protest is intercut with the poignant, horrific reality of a young man in bed fighting for his life.
Terror of death seeps into the film’s consciousness, making the viewer hyper-aware of the health of all the characters: how is he breathing and walking? How is her skin holding up? Why is that person having a nosebleed? Yet the sweetness – and sexiness – of the main romance in the film, between the fragile, bambi-ish Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and the rugged Nathan (Arnaud Valois), offers a perfectly pitched counterpoint. This is thrilling, immersive film-making, which manages to be nostalgic without being saccharine, and politically defiant without losing sight of the personal tragedies at its story’s heart.
120 BPM is released in cinemas and on Curzon on Demand from April 6