120 BPM – 120 batteries per minute (2017)
Directed by: Robin Campillo | 140 minutes | drama | Actors: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adèle Haenel, Antoine Reinartz, Félix Maritaud, Médhi Touré, Aloïse Sauvage, Simon Bourgade, Catherine Vinatier, Saadia Bentaïeb, Ariel Borenstein, Théophile Ray, Simon Guélat, Jean-François Ru Augustse, Coralie
The French activist drama ‘120 BPM’ (120 Battements Par Minute) takes us back to the 90s. More specifically to the time when the fight against AIDS was approaching a climax and activist groups took a stand against the wavering pharmaceutical industry and against institutions (schools, churches) who refused to promote condom use. In ‘120 BPM’ we end up in the youthful activist group Act Up Paris. A group whose members are inevitably as diverse as the victims of AIDS.
‘120 BPM’ follows two parallel storylines, one about the group, the other about the two gay members Nathan and Sean. The second line is less successful than the first. Although Sean and Nathan talk, sex and argue a lot, you never really get to know them. Their drama is therefore less relevant than it could be. In addition, a sex scene and a drawn-out dramatic sequence at the end are way too long.
Fortunately, we also become acquainted with the fascinating existence of activists. We join demonstrations, take part in hard actions, developing an almost collegial relationship with the police. We talk and finger-click along with the large-scale Weekly Meeting. Held in a sort of botched lecture hall, the meeting is conducted entirely in French (chaotic, sometimes cheerful and then bitter, sometimes philosophical as only the French can do). We also sit at the table with Act Up’s medical committee, which has a mutually dependent relationship with the pharmaceutical industry.
Director Robin Campillo makes no effort to idealize activist life. Act Up has different movements and different types of victims. Discussions between these groups are sometimes borderline, whereby it is striking that the groups often opt for their own interests, despite the common enemy. Also, some actions get out of hand and you sometimes get the idea that some activists are mainly interested in the kick. This does not alter the fact that the activists are almost always in their right and driven by despair. Plus, some of the promotions are really cute, like the crash course in condom use in schools.
‘120 BPM’ has a semi-documentary style (comparable to school drama ‘Entre les murs’) that fits the subject perfectly. The acting is fine and there is also some room for humor. Not a masterpiece, but vibrant and full of zest for life. Despite (or because of) the heavy subject.