As awards season approaches ever nearer, there is usually an annual crop of LGBT themed Oscar-baiting films that attempt to show the trials and tribulations of queer people throughout recent history, in a manner designed for the acceptance of straight audiences first and foremost. Nobody could mistake a film like Dallas Buyers Club (in which Matthew McConaughey won numerous awards portraying a “straight-washed” version of a real-life bisexual figure) as being a film with a personal interest in accurately depicting an important moment in gay history.
With the topic of AIDS in mainstream cinema largely relegated to films with more of an interest in awards than realistic empathy for gay communities the world over, a film like 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) feels like a major cinematic milestone. It’s a fiercely angry and impassioned work of political cinema that is vibrant, sometimes hilarious and frequently tearjerking – and most importantly, it is unapologetically queer in a way so few films on the AIDS crisis allow themselves to be. This is a film squarely focused on documenting a moment in history for gay audiences, offering concessions to straight viewers only in the sense that it offers them a chance to showcase basic empathy and be moved by a story that deals with a culture they won’t be able to relate to. In my screening, this worked wonders: by the time the end credits silently rolled, there wasn’t a single dry eye in the house.
Largely based on director Robin Campillo’s personal experiences with the Act Up movement, 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) is a sprawling ensemble piece that follows the protest movement’s attempts to kickstart a political conversation about AIDS – as well as getting access to the healthcare many members so desperately needed. In the midst of this political backdrop, we mostly follow Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a new recruit to the group who slowly develops feelings for Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), although Nathan’s negative status and Sean’s Poz status increasingly sees their relationship head down a tragic path.
This is director Robin Campillo’s third film (following 2013’s cult favourite Eastern Boys, as well as 2004’s The Returned, which was spun-off in to an internationally successful TV series), but it shares more similarities with a film he co-wrote and edited – 2008’s The Class. That widely acclaimed film, based on a successful non-fiction book, depicted a year in the life of a struggling school in the inner city Parisian suburbs, taking a documentary-aping approach with no wider narrative outside of what we are shown inside the classroom. A large portion of BPM’s running time is devoted to showcasing the inner-workings of Act-Up through their group meetings – which, like The Class, manage to feel largely improvisational, capturing the spirit of being at a meeting surrounded by dozens of angry and passionate individuals desperate for justice.
But Campillo has more visual ambition than merely stylising his film as a pure docudrama – and his background as a respected film editor make him well equipped to follow documentary style moments with (to name one awe-inspiring example) nightclub sequences where the visuals slowly transform in to borderline science fiction style sequences of a virus spreading across the body. Combined with some fantastic sound editing, the house music heavy soundtrack repeatedly abstracting itself and segueing in to intimate moments effortlessly, and the end result is a feast for the senses. Campillo leads a team of three editors here, and helps weave together the intimate and the epic moments to feel like natural bedfellows.
The autobiographical, documentary style is also largely due to Campillo being a noted Act-Up activist during the early nineties (the most harrowing sequence here is based on something that happened to him), and by his own admission, did very little research to bring this passion project to the screen due to living many of these experiences himself. This ensures the film never becomes mere misery porn, even in its saddest moments; his film is sexually liberated, frequently comical and in some cases, transcendentally fantastical – even as it maintains a bluntness when dealing with the more upsetting medical elements. BPM earns the right to show an unrelenting sadness in its later stages by letting viewers invest in the heart and soul of a warm, welcoming community, instead of just diving straight in to the more headline-grabbing moments of misery.
120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) is an important film, designed to start conversations and bring this significant social issue back in to the public eye. But it’s far from a heavy handed political lecture; this is a loving, moving masterpiece that manages to be equally intimate and epic- taking a political milestone for the LGBT community and making it personal in a manner that still resonates today. I cannot recommend this enough.
Read our Film Review (in Spanish) 120 Pulsaciones Por Minuto