By Neil Murphy
120 BPM is a moving love story that deals with death, yet throbs with life. It is all the more powerful for it’s restrained passion, dignity and indignation. As a film based on opposition and opposites, it is crafted into a harmonious whole. There is a perfect balance of theme, structure, character and dialogue for a film structured around dualities.
The plot revolves around the Act Up campaign in the 1990’s against a pharmaceutical company that refuses to reveal it’s findings on potentially effective new drugs at the height of France’s AIDS epidemic. The director Robin Campillo joined Act Up having lost a partner in the early 90’s.
The film’s title is connected to the beat of house music, We enter the Act Up group on Nathan’s shoulder (Arnaud Valois) and in the tradition of a river novel/film we enter a broad flow between the characters. From Nathan it passes to Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), the radical, and to Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), the moderate. It’s the antagonistic muscles of radical and moderate that propels the plot. Against this backdrop, a love story emerges between Sean (HIV+) and Nathan (HIV-). Again we find duality between Nathan who has overprotected himself since the beginning of the epidemic, almost afraid to live and Sean who is ‘burning himself in life’ and in his struggle against AIDS. As Sean becomes increasingly sick and loses his objectivity he removes himself from the group and the other characters ‘disappear like ghosts’. The film stays with Sean and Nathan’s love story until the other characters return near the end and the collective dimension is reasserted.
Campillo wanted to avoid the convention of the collective dimension as docudrama and the intimate dimension as fiction, preferring the freedom to move from one dimension to another. ‘It’s a very conventional thing to think you’re either in the collective or the intimate’,” he explains. For instance, there is a debate in the amphitheater that looks like a collective debate but at the same time it is an intimate argument between a couple. Nathan discovers just how sick Sean is when Sean says that his T4 cells are dangerously low in front of everyone. Campillo points out that the film represents Act Up at the time, the question of the AIDS epidemic was always connected to both intimacy and the collective action.
While providing a fly-on-the-wall view of events, 120 BPM harnesses the power of drama over documentary to connect on an emotional level, without ever feeling manipulative or exploitative. As a masterwork of stirring drama and agitprop filmmaking, the film never looses sight of it’s goals as both an humanitarian tribute to lives lost and call to courage.