The place is Paris, the time is the early nineteen-nineties, and among the gay community and beyond the AIDS crisis is deeply felt, but those who are suffering the most do not believe they are being taken seriously by the authorities, be that the politicians or the pharmaceutical companies who claim to be conducting research into a cure. In the United States, the ACT UP protest group has made great inroads in making this a national talking point even if they are fighting ignorance, but in France the picture is far less rosy, as many more are dying there from the disease than there are in the United Kingdom or Germany. Thus, the French ACT UP group has work to do...
At the stage director Robin Campillo's 120 BPM (or 120 battements par minute as it was known originally) was released, AIDS was no longer a death sentence for those infected thanks to huge progress carried out by the chemists who developed medication to combat it. Which had some wondering why a film like this existed, when the problem, as far as they could see, was solved, though that displayed the same ignorance the pressure group depicted here was up against, for there was nothing wrong in visiting history and learning how we got here from there. It was true Campillo made a meal of his tale, clocking in at almost two-and-a-half hours, however.
Then again, he had a lot to say, and was working from a position of his own personal experience, as he had been an activist back in those dark days for the homosexual community thus we were getting as close to the truth as a fictionalisation could be. He had seen friends and lovers die when they were being told there was nothing that could be done, when he and his fellow activists were certain there was: for that motive the corporations in charge of researching any kind of cure are painted in a very unflattering light. You may not agree with the group's actions of throwing fake blood around their offices, but it certainly got them noticed, even if they were pissing off those who could help.
But this was not some polemic far after the fact, as Campillo did exhibit some wisdom as to what he had learned about the times that shaped him as a young man. We were offered a selection of scenes where the group would discuss the issues and their courses of action, and not always reach a consensus either; if anyone wanted to adapt this film for the stage, concentrating on these sequences would be a good start. There was a lot theatrical about much of how 120 BPM played out, novelistic even, but then to render it more cinematic an interlude would pass by showing the characters strutting their funky stuff on the dancefloor, possibly to music that went 120 beats per minute (a remix of Bronski Beat's Smalltown Boy was heard late on, which was a massive cliché, but also an important record, so you had to allow it).
In amongst all these politics and social issues the director wanted us to remember something else as well: that love was at the heart of these concerns. Therefore we followed the doomed romance of Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), one of the rabble rousers in the gay community of Paris, and Nathan (Arnaud Valois), the less strident member of the group who is tending towards looking for a boyfriend more than he is being a vital part of activism, though that is important to him as well, and we discover why when Valois delivered a compelling monologue on Nathan's previous relationship. The trouble is, while Nathan is "neg", Sean is "poz" and as the film wore on, he disintegrated before our very eyes, just as thousands of others did in real life, which as you can understand offers no comfort in numbers. Here we can see that while love was a guiding force, fear was a defining one, the fear of dying horribly thanks to a disease few were taking as seriously, as urgently, as they should have. If this had its strident stretches, it was a valuable reminder of an era that shaped the modern world. Music by Arnaud Rebotini.
[Curzon's Blu-ray has a featurette on the cheerleading sequence and a trailer as extras.]