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Cannes 2017: Hearts beat furiously in defiant AIDS drama

© Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival | Nahuel Pérez Biscayart is the stand-out performer in Robin Campillo's "120 Beats Per Minute".

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2017-05-20

The Cannes Film Festival finds a serious contender in Robin Campillo’s “120 Beats Per Minute”, a tribute to the activist group ACT UP, while Sweden’s Ruben Östlund pokes fun at the art world in his latest dark satire, “The Square”.

There has been no shortage of heterosexual intercourse and women baring it all on Cannes screens this year. We've had women as muses, as comforters, as trophies. But when it comes to their male partners, a sweaty back, a blurry silhouette and a post-coital cigarette is all we get. For some reason it still takes a film about gay people, by a gay director, to show candid male nudity and men making love with men. Last year, there was Alain Guiraudie’s “Staying Vertical” and its frontal, fluid sexuality. This year we have Robin Campillo’s “120 Beats Per Minute”, a tightly focused, deeply moving drama about gay activists striving to live life to the fullest even as they battle disease and indifference.

Campillo draws on his own experience as an ACT UP member in this homage to the direct-action group that did much to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic in early 1990s France, at the height of the crisis. A vibrant and powerful ensemble movie, “120 Beats” is also a painful reminder that many in the political and pharmaceutical establishment felt the plight of the gay community was none of their business. Its depiction of ACT UP’s transgressive, confrontational tactics hints at a parallel with the deadly revolutionary uprisings that shook Paris in 1848. Some viewers might think 1968 was a more obvious parallel – except this time people are dying in droves.

From left to right: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Adèle Haenel and Arnaud Valois attend the Cannes photocall for Robin Campillo's "120 Beats Per Minute" on May 20, 2017. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

The film’s frantic title (a resting heart should normally beat 60 to 100 times a minute) refers to the protagonists’ desperate race against a disease that is killing them off one by one. It highlights the urgency of a work that poignantly melds the intimate and the political. While sickness and death haunt the movie, “120 Beats” is also a celebration of love and friendship, and of the forums – nightclubs, gay pride parades, ACT UP assemblies – that give strength to a vulnerable community (though non-French-speakers reliant on subtitles will find the group’s endless debates tiring and hard to follow).

The mostly male cast includes stand-out performances by Arnaud Valois and Argentinian actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, a former member of New York's famed theatre company The Wooster Group, whose Keatonesque delicacy conceals the fire and rage inside him. A smaller part for French rising star Adèle Haenel felt a little under-scripted. There were tears aplenty at Saturday’s press screening, though Campillo creditably refrains from maudlin sentimentality. His defiant film is steeped in tragedy and loss, but the fight goes on.

The notion that individuals might act in unison to better society is also at the heart of Ruben Östlund’s “The Square”, Saturday’s other competition screening. But the Swedish director’s dark, surreal satire is a very different work. It follows up on his 2014 hit “Force Majeure”, about a man’s desperate attempts to reclaim his patriarchal role after he abandoned his wife and children in their hour of need. In a similar vein, “The Square” is a meditation on white, bourgeois, liberal guilt, in which selfish individuals profess to abide by lofty values, only to end up behaving like herd animals.

Danish actor Claes Bang gives a sterling performance as Christian, the dashing, sophisticated and confidently tolerant chief curator of a prestigious art museum. His new project, centred on an artwork called The Square, reflects his professed aim to foster values of equality, solidarity and mutual trust in a society that is leaning the other way. As in “Force Majeure”, a single incident sets in motion a chain of freaky events that will undermine Christian’s endeavour and assumptions. Things spin further out of control when the PR team in charge of promoting his exhibit come up with a clicky but wacky publicity stunt, with far-reaching consequences.

A still from Ruben Östlund's "The Square". © Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Disquieting and often hilarious, “The Square” is a slick and enthralling situational comedy, an allegory of a dysfunctional society made hollow by individualism and indifference. It is most insightful when probing Christian’s refusal to own up to his own failings and hypocrisy. But Östlund’s overextended film tends to lose its focus towards the end, and it’s a shame he undermines his message with a somewhat heavy-handed parody of the contemporary art scene, a world that surely does not require caricature to invite a little ridicule.

Date created : 2017-05-20

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