120 Beats Per Minute: Lest We Forget the Fight Against AIDS

by Emanuel Levy May 26, 2017
A scene from the film "BPM (Beats Per Minute)"

les films de pierre/france 3

Gallic writer-director Robin Campillo is a major talent to watch. In is feature directing debut, 120 Beats Per Minute which world premiered in Competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Fest, he revisits with passion and compassion his past as a member of the AIDS activist organization ACT UP in 1990s Paris.

One of the artistic highlights of the competition lineup in this year’s edition,120 Beats Per Minute should travel well the global festival circuit, including the various LGBT venues in the US, which next month celebrates Gay Pride in various cities all over the country.

But while this chronicle focuses, as expected, on politics and heated debates (both within and without the ACT UP group), it never neglects the human stories of its dozen central characters, male and female, younger and older.

Here is a document that serves as a useful reminder of a painful era in AIDS history, during which the François Mitterand’s government showed indifference and ineffectual approach to the rampant epidemic.

The stats are indeed alarming: In the early 1990s, a decade into the disease, there were still 6,000 new cases registered per year of HIV/AIDS, twice as many than in the neighboring UK.

In the short run, the Paris ACT UP aimed at raising awareness of AIDS and forcing the institutional apparatus to acknowledge the existence of the problem and its deadly-terminal effects.  But the scope of the feature is wider: One of its main targets is the refusal of major drug companies to expedite their research with new medications and experimental treatments, a process that would take another decade.

The film’s first reel is particularly powerful.  Campillo intercuts a protest, during a state AIDS prevention organization conference, with detailed coverage of the weekly ACT UP meetings. The meetings are attended by old timers as well as new members recruited to the cause.

One of the newcomers is Nathan (Arnaud Valois) a young handsome guy, who becomes sort of a protagonist in this ensemble-driven drama.  It is through his subjective point-of-view that we observe many of the events.

It quickly becomes clear that, in addition to being interested in the organization’s political mission, he is also romantically and sexually interested in the equally young but more experienced and radical member, Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayatt).

Their blossoming romance is shown in bits and pieces, amidst the extreme strategies taken by ACT UP.  Some of those are regular disruptions of high school classes, to the dismay of teachers and administrators, in order to lecture and demonstrate safe sex practices, like distributing condoms.  Unlike the moralist—and hypocritical—educators, the ACT UP activists know that teenagers begin practicing sex at an early age and thus are the main targets of the epidemic.

In one of the most graphically bloody (literally) scene, the members invade the Paris laboratories of a greedy pharmaceutical giant, splattering the white walls and glass doors with pouches of fake blood, which are mixed at home by Marco (Theophile Ray), a young hemophiliac.

Camillo is shrewd in showing that the members were not just young gays and lesbians (some infected with HIV virus, others still healthy).  The group’s militant leaders make sure at the very first initiation that the HIV status is “irrelevant” to the proceedings, and should not be disclosed publicly.

Among the adults is Marco’s mother, Helene (Catherine Vinatier), who had joined the group after finding out that she herself had been injecting her son with infected blood, provided by the local hospital.

As he proved in his screenplay for the 2008 Cannes Fest top winner, The Class, directed by Laurent CantetCampillo is a sharp observer of the ways individuals speak, argue, fight, engage in violence and, yes, make love. The chronicle is admittedly long—two and a half hours—and a good editor should be able to trim the feature to well under two hours.

As noted, amidst the intellectual and political discussions, there is the gentle romance between the two likable members, and the first time they make love and discuss their previous sexual experiences is the most moving and revelatory scene, because it humanizes the characters.  We are devastated to learn that one of them was infected by his straight married teacher (who may or may not have been aware of his status) and yet the youth claims responsibility for his condition and is not angry at his perpetrator; the other partner acknowledges that he had not practiced safe sex before.

The film is extremely well shot by the brilliant cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie, who utilizes cinema-verité, restless camera and stark lighting to capture the immediacy and urgency of the heated debates and political disruptions, and a lush and seductive visual style in depicting the affair (and love making) of the two heroes, who are extremely handsome and likable. Campillo's presence in this festival is also evident as co-writer of Laurent Cantet's new film, L'Atelier (The Workshop), which plays in the parallel series, Un Certain Regard.