DMovies - Your platform for thought-provoking cinema

120 Beats per Minute (120 Battements par Minute)

Director - Robin Campillo - 2017

"Dirty gem"
Because the heart never stops beating: French movie is an energetic and yet painful reminder of the Aids crisis of the 1980s/1990s and the activism that it triggered - from the BFI London and the Cambridge Film Festival

Looking back at history can be extremely painful, in both a physical and metaphorical sense. Robin Campillo’s 120 Beats per Minute takes a a look at the activists from Act Up in the Paris of the late 1980s/early 1990s, the pinnacle of the Aids crisis. The movie blends passion and resilience with the raw and bleak reality of those infected with HIV, at a time when the disease was almost synonymous with a death sentence.

Act Up (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) is an international direct action advocacy group promoting awareness of the Aids pandemic, as well as fighting for legislation, medical research and treatment for those infected. The group originated in the US, and it was notoriously active in France – the country had more than twice the number of infections as Germany and the UK (according to the movie). “Direct action” and “fighting” are not euphemisms. These young and energetic activists engaged in extreme activism, including invading a pharma labs and bombarding it with fake blood, handcuffing an executive on stage during a major event, and guerrilla-lecturing schools about safe sex while also handing out condoms to underage boys and girls. The film wraps up with what’s probably the most radical and symbolic militant act that I can think of, but obviously I’m not going to spoil this for you.

The ensemble cast is composed of a closely-knit group of young activists who meet up regularly in order to discuss the next actions. They are very supportive of each other and also extremely organised. They don’t clap in their meetings so that they don’t interrupt the speaker. Instead they snap their fingers in order to express approval of what’s being said. Their mottoes are remarkable. They range from the silly “I am Aids, you are Aids, we are Aids” to the shocking “When I grow up I’m going to be HIV positive”, stamped on a placard alongside the picture of a child. They are fiery and volatile, prone to emotional outbursts – which is quite understandable given their horrific predicament. Yet their stamina and determination stand above everything else. They are truly inspiring. Their heart is beating against all odds, in very good French style of self-determination – as in the last sequence of Marcel Carné’s Les Visiteurs du Soir (1942). The difference is that in Carné film the heart continues to beat despise the Nazi occupation. Here the heart continues to beat despite the HIV virus and the prejudice attached.

Campillo’s film manages to highlight the ambiguity of the agenda of the pharma labs. They never release interim results, and it’s unclear why they refuse to do so. Are they vouching for the quality of medical research or it it entirely about their commercial interests: The film also examines the agenda of insurers, which is far less ambiguous: “they want us dead”, claims Act Up.

Finally, the movie highlights the double-edged reverberations of radical activism. On one hand, they do a wonderful job in raising awareness of the Aids crisis and the plight of the infected. On the other hand, they also increase publicity for the retroviral drugs AZT and DDI, and this could cause their prices to soar, one of the activists deftly notes. Another problem is the apathy of the hedonistic gay scene, who are very reluctant to engage in the fight out of fear of stigmatisation. These young people have to fight on several fronts at the same time, and their predicament is an uphill struggle.

Some critics have condemned the film for being untimely. I beg to differ. Act Up is still active, and while HIV has been demoted from fatal to chronic disease, the struggle goes on. 120 Beats per Minute is both a meditation and a historical register of our lack of preparedness to deal with a new epidemic, and to reconcile personal, political and medical interests. Other epidemics will eventually come and we need to be able to fight them.

I have sung the praises of the film so loudly, so you might be asking why I haven given it our maximum rating: five dirty splats. 120 Beats per Minute has one shortcoming: its duration. At nearly two hours and a half, the film feels too long, and the narrative doesn’t sustain itself throughout. It should have been at least 30 minutes shorter. That’s 3,600 heartbeats.

120 Beats per Minute is showing at the 61st BFI London Film Festival and the Cambridge Film Festival, both taking place in October.



"Dirty gem"

By Victor Fraga - 09-10-2017

By Victor Fraga - 09-10-2017

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based writer w...

DMovies Poll

Should smoking in cinema be banned?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Most Read

Pigs might fly. And so Brexit might happen. [Read More...]
Perhaps no other 20th century artist has captured [Read More...]
Time flies by! DMovies was launched in February [Read More...]
The British and the French have joined efforts! [Read More...]
Turn on the fan on and grab yourself [Read More...]
Films quotes are very powerful not just because [Read More...]

Read More

Cursed Be Your Name, Liberty (Maldito Sea tu Nombre, Libertad)

Vladimir Ceballos
1994

Victor Fraga - 29-10-2016

Finding freedom through Aids: extremely rare to be seen Cuban documentary reveals rockers that find liberty by injecting themselves with the HIV virus, at a time when this was almost synonymous with a death sentence - here they explain their twisted and frantic reasoning [Read More...]

Desert Migration

Daniel Cardone
2015

Victor Fraga - 13-07-2016

The gay Ballad of Narayama? Gay Americans living with HIV move to the desert as they get older, where they calmly wait for their deaths, seek spiritual healing and community support [Read More...]

Redoubtable (Le Redoutable)

Michel Hazanavicious
2017

Victor Fraga - 21-05-2017

Biopic of the legendary French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and his former wife Anne Wiazemsky is a very touching, funny and yet profound tribute to the revolutionary fervour of the late 1960s in all of its wonderful contradictions - from the BFI London Festival [Read More...]

Facebook Comment

Website Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *