120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) (aka 120 BPM / BPM (Beats Per Minute) / 120 battements par minute) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
It’d be far too easy to reap easy tears and melodrama from the protests of ACT UP in Paris of the gay community against the restrictive and demonizing government response of the AIDS epidemic. But here is a film that doesn’t aim so low with its story of the uphill battle in the 1990s. It doesn’t give us a mushy sensation of hope for the future but embodies us within the dire scenario, evoking all the pain and passion for the plight of the gay community being treated as second-class citizens.
The various ACT UP members are given a genuine personality that erupts with great fury. We meet them at ACT UP meetings of classrooms, a forum where the many affected bicker and banter about what to do next as the clock is ticking for many of them. Then there are the more quiet and sexual scenes between the gay men of the group, paid with close attention and ample focus in the hazy darkness of concealing their love. These two tones of the ACT UP group presents more three-dimensional characters than merely civil right crusaders of traits more heroically wrapped in ambition rather than bound by troubling lives. Such lives are hard to maintain as you watch your friends and lover perish around you, with the world seeming to care little for your situation.
Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) is presented as the leader of ACT UP, staging their protests and struggling to maintain common ground in a group that seems to not only disagree on their tactics but feud about smoking during meetings. Sophie (Adèle Haenel) tries to bring new ideas into the mix. Max (Félix Maritaud) takes the lead on concocting props for protests, including fake blood. Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) finds himself full of ideas as well as a love for the newest member of the group, Nathan (Arnaud Valois). Romance blooms with aspects of eroticism, drama, and tragedy as two souls fight to maintain love in a society that would rather such affection be shut out.
Director Robin Campillo doesn’t want to shut out any of this story, keeping in every challenging and heartbreaking aspect. We don’t just hear about characters dying off-screen; we watch them slowly drift away in situations that linger long after, haunting the viewer with how one could continue living when so many forces seem to be against you. We just don’t hear of the gay romances taking place behind closed doors; we follow them in and watch that sexuality take hold and form a bond in the ambiance of revolution and a desire to fight on another day. The relationship between Sean and Nathan is anything but simple, showcasing a complicated series of feelings that leads to distrust and questioning of just how far they’re willing to take this romance.
120 BPM runs exceptionally long at 140 minutes but warrants every minute as we keep our eyes and ears fixated on the struggling. We get to know and love these characters as relatable people all the more to see just how much Big Pharma and the government has damaged their lives. If we only took heed, we could see people and not just some othering by the homophobic and stuffy suits who chose to ignore a real problem. Maybe we haven’t come very far since, but this film lets us know that the protesters were not just angry young people protesting for the sake of protesting. They had cause for anger and concern in a society that would rather tone police than listen. Perhaps we will listen after the fact, one hopes.