120 BPM: Powerfully urgent cinema
James R | On 06, Apr 2018
Director: Robin Campillo
Cast: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adèle Haenel
Watch 120 BPM online in the UK: All 4 / Netflix UK / Curzon Home Cinema / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
ACT UP. It’s a verb, as well as a noun, and Robin Campillo’s portrait of the AIDS activist group in the 1990s embraces both meanings of the word with a pounding, stirring energy.
Throwing us into the movement’s machinations, the Cannes prize-winning drama is a visceral combination of the personal and political, a portrait of young people racing to beat the illness that threatens to kill them, both for the wider population and for each other.
Campillo gives us the time to get to know the group, particularly newcomer Nathan (Valois), who forms a romantic attachment to veteran Sean (Biscayart), who speaks out at the back of each meeting – and there’s a tender heart to those interactions that underscores the very human cost of the illness. He balances that with a keen understanding of process and democracy, as the activists balance their urge to make a difference with the vital question of how to actually achieve that goal. Antoine Reinartz is superb as Thibault, the de facto leader, who has to put on a smiling, encouraging face, even when he’s heartbroken, or when all his friends want to do is run riot and paint the Seine red.
A fictionalised counterpart to David France’s powerful documentary How to Survive a Plague, which chronicled ACT UP’s work in the USA, this is a richer work, which empathises with activism in every aspect, and embraces the importance of discussion and education – one scene where they invade a school to hand out informative leaflets is a rallying, convincing call for having these conversations at a young age to prevent any further victims. One final act perhaps feels a tad overlong, after a sad grace note halfway through, but it’s worth it for the sight of the group in the streets crying for more volunteers and more action. Dazzlingly edited and intimately performed, 120 BPM is an intellectual drama, a political thriller and a living tragedy – a cinematic experience that will leave your heart racing way above the average.
120 BPM is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription. It is also available on All 4 until 21st July 2021.