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‘120 Beats Per Minute’: Hearts pound in defiant AIDS drama

© Céline Nieszawer | Nahuel Pérez Biscayart is the stand-out performer in Robin Campillo's "120 Beats Per Minute".

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2017-08-23

Robin Campillo’s tribute to direct-action group ACT UP, which opens in French cinemas on Wednesday, is a deeply moving drama about gay activists striving to live life to the fullest even as they battle disease and indifference.

There is no shortage of irony in the universal acclaim that has greeted Robin Campillo’s remarkable new feature. The winner of the Cannes Grand Prix earlier this year, “120 Beats Per Minute” was the darling of the world’s most glamorous film festival and the toast of the press: an almost incongruous fate for a movie dedicated to the most turbulent and insolent of activist groups, one that never shied away from provoking outrage and distaste in its frantic endeavour to foster change.

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

It’s been thirty years since the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) first appeared in New York, ushering in an era of transgressive, in-your-face protests that continues to inspire activists around the world. A former member of ACT UP's Paris chapter, Campillo has drawn on his own experience to pay tribute to the young men and women who 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 were unconcerned for the plight of the gay community. Its depiction of ACT UP’s confrontational tactics hints at a parallel with the deadly revolutionary uprisings that shook Paris in 1848. In both cases, people were dying in droves.

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 the film’s screening in Cannes, though Campillo creditably refrains from maudlin sentimentality. His defiant film is steeped in tragedy and loss, but the fight goes on.

An earlier version of this review was published on May 20 during the 70th Cannes Film Festival.

Date created : 2017-08-23

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