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120 BPM (Beats per Minute): A Heartfelt, Urgent and Impassioned ode to AIDS activism
April 6, 2018
It has been nearly a decade since I visited an AIDS hospice in South Africa, an experience that is not easily forgotten and one that came flooding back while watching 120 BPM.
Set in the early 1990s, Robin Campillo’s film follows of a group of French AIDS activists – members of ACT UP’s Paris branch – as they plan and enact their attempts to raise awareness of the AIDS crisis and force drug companies and politicians into action. Much of drama takes place in a lecture style room where their weekly meetings take place. There is an impassioned urgency to every debate, with the knowledge that time might be limited. Outside their meetings we see them attack pharmaceutical companies, attend Pride events, fall in love and struggle with a disease that slowly takes over their lives.
The title doesn’t just refer to heart rates measured by hospital monitors but also to the electronic music that fills the soundtrack and accompanies the group’s heady nights out. It would have been easy for 120 BPM to have merely been about AIDS and its side effects but the filmmakers prefer to show us a more multifaceted image of those living with and alongside the disease; as a result the personal and political are interwoven. The disease becomes part of people’s identity with one activist professing that he has lived ‘politics in the first person.’ The naturalistic dialogue and documentary like cinematography make it feel as if you are beside the characters at each turn, experiencing everything first hand. As the story progresses it becomes heartbreakingly apparent that even if a cure is one day found, in many cases it will be too late.
Few films have ever illustrated the inner workings of a social movement so well. The mechanics and conflicts of protest are present in each action, with the desire for public acceptance at odds with their more radical ideals. ACT UP will be familiar to viewers of David France’s brilliant 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague, which charted the activities of the organisation’s American counterparts.
120 BPM not only dramatises this group’s battle for adequate treatment and medication but details the very human pressures that this fight places on those involved. It is unwavering in its defence of dignity and its support for those who fight against subjugation.
My only criticism is that at nearly two and a half hours in length the film is probably around ten minutes too long. Though it never drags or becomes tiresome it does loose some of its initial energy and potency. The final sequences in particular are drawn out slightly too much and, even though they are very moving, you can begin to feel like an unwelcome intruder.
120 Beats per Minute is a tender, empowering, and affecting look at love, loss, and what it means to be alive. Despite its period setting, there is something very timely about the characters we see. They display a kind of resilience and dynamic conviction that make their actions feel resonant and bold within the world we currently inhabit.
120 BPM is out today.
Words by Wyndham Hacket Pain @WyndhamHP
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