Stories of the AIDS epidemic have been told through film before, be it through Tom Hanks’ meek, wronged lawyer in Philadelphia, or the raucous group of bohemians at the centre of Rent. In some cases, such as Philadelphia, the subject has been tackled well; handled with true care and made in order to encourage awareness and understanding of the impact that the disease had on a great deal of the LGBTQ+ community in the late twentieth century. In other cases, like that of Dallas Buyers Club, it feels as if the film has been created specifically for the purpose of picking up awards, complete with the casting of cisgender actors in trans roles (which, unfortunately, the Academy love). Robin Campillo’s 120 Beats Per Minute, however, feels unlike any other drama to have previously documented the AIDS crisis. This is no melodrama, no baiter in blatant search of Oscar glory. Rather, this is a searing, pulsating, and, perhaps above all, unashamedly physical look at the lives of AIDS activists working directly within the bustle of nineties Paris. It is as devastating as it is energetic and is almost impossible not to talk about without developing an overwhelming desire to immediately watch it again.
120 Beats per Minute opens in the dim backstage of a lecture theatre, engulfed in near total darkness, and explodes into life within a matter of minutes. For this theatre is where the Paris section of ACT UP carry out their most unintentionally controversial protest yet, as a bag of fake blood is thrown just a little prematurely and a government official is handcuffed to a pole. Already, 120 Beats per Minute has established a unique tone that allows humour to exist alongside the terrible reality of having to force the government to care for a community at risk. The conversation that takes place after this scene in an ACT UP meeting is both amusing and unsettling; chatter flows easily amongst friends here but the subject matter at the heart of the gathering is deeply unsettling. The French government has essentially pushed the issue of AIDS aside, thrust it upon a sub-section to handle it, but still no solid treatment exists. The activists, made up of friends, acquaintances, and lovers, have heard only of rumoured drug trials. They are given no true sense of security, no comfort. Just the occasional word from health and pharmaceutical professionals who seem to forget the urgency of the situation for those that are HIV-positive. For the members of ACT UP, there is no disconnect from politics; their lives are intertwined with the decisions of governing bodies. For today’s world, in which the privileged may feel able to separate the political from the personal, 120 Beats per Minute is a stark reminder that many, who faced death while politicians ignored their pleas, could not. Many LGBTQ+ individuals continue to face ostracization from those in power while they are told that they are too wrapped up in so-called ‘identity politics’. These identity politics, however, are exactly what were used by governments to justify their side-lining of the impact of AIDS on the LGBTQ+ community at the height of the crisis. Officials around the world were slow to respond to the cries of countless gay people and, as is shown in 120 Beats per Minute, repeatedly showed disdain at ACT UP’s attempts to educate others, particularly the young, on the reality of the disease. It is said during the final act of the film that one of the group’s most impassioned members ‘lived his politics in the first person’ and with this one line, we are reminded that identity politics were, and still are, directly connected to life for so many.
The intoxicating energy of 120 Beats per Minute, and the tender heart at the centre of it all, comes mostly from its lead performances. As Sean, a charismatic, anarchic activist, who is arguably the wittiest member of the Parisian section of ACT UP, Nahuel Perez Biscayart is stunning. He is as equally vulnerable as he is unrelenting and somehow individually manages to provide the film’s funniest, most sensual, and most heart-rending scenes. In one moment, he laments on the temporality of his life as a HIV-positive man as he talks poetically of the setting sun on the Seine, only to then reveal that he is joking. He is not interested in sentimentality, only in living as electrically as he did before, and ensuring that ACT UP are finally taken notice of. Sean is the most explosive, and often the most unpredictable, member of the group but he is far from just a two-dimensional rebel. He is as terrified as anyone else of the disease, frightened of dying before he is even twenty-one, and Biscayart conveys this fear with nuance in the tender scenes he shares with Arnaud Valois’ Nathan. The moments between these two are as lovely as they come, and their sex scenes feel refreshingly authentic, but there is a haunting undercurrent to their relationship. As they gradually become lovers and begin to share their sexual history with one another, Sean’s account of how he contracted HIV at the age of sixteen is devastating not just for us, but for Nathan, too. For Nathan, who is HIV-negative, Sean’s status as positive makes their growing relationship a bittersweet one. Their love, both Nathan and Sean know, cannot blossom in the way that they wish it would. Each moment they share together is tinged with a sense of sombreness and repeatedly feels more real than any swooning romance in another film could ever hope to feel. Biscayart and Valois’ wonderful performances serve as the anchor that keeps 120 Beats per Minute so grounded, as they remind us of exactly what so many young men were denied and deprived of during the epidemic.
Urgent, lively, and devastating, 120 Beats per Minute is the kind of cinema that stays with you for weeks upon weeks, for it is so full of power and passion. Never has the story of ACT UP been dramatized in such a way before, with the kind of total believability and honesty that is found here. While it may be a harrowing watch at times, 120 Beats per Minute is an essential film, as it pays moving tribute to one of the most important parts of LGBTQ+ history; one which stole some of the best and brightest of the community away and left many others to live in fear. It is, ultimately, absolutely necessary viewing.
By Hannah Ryan / @_hannahryan