Opening with a protest by an ACT UP AIDS activist group in which they throw fake blood at inefficient politicians and handcuff them to a stage, 120 Beats Per Minute first shows us the thrilling energy of the activism movement into which we will be embedded. But rather than keep us immersed with the ‘action’ of this protest, director Robin Campillo instead chooses to cut back and forth between the group doing a debrief of the protest in a lecture theatre. It’s well done and effective in the way in which it makes you immediately begin to engage intellectually in what you are seeing, encouraging you to think deeply, as the characters are, about the implications of the most minute detail.
But whilst providing an intellectually stimulating opening Campillo also winds up making what we’re seeing feel somewhat academic. As the characters, of which there are many within the film’s impressive ensemble, state many times, this is a personal movement about people who are dying right now. Emotion is important, and whilst 120 Beats Per Minute has emotionally dramatic moments – largely in the second half of the film – there’s a degree to which Campillo gets a little bogged down in a slightly workmanlike essay-like exploration of the movement, rather than a dramatic and moving film about people. When the drama does come into the story though it hits you like a freight train.
As the film progresses and protagonists begin to emerge out of the ensemble – primarily the film becomes the story of Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and Nathan (Arnaud Valois) – theres a growing sense of the personal, and as the film reaches it’s heartfelt climax the emotional swell one feels is both for the macro story and the micro. A shot of the Seine dyed blood red is particularly chilling.
Campillo does a superb job of using sex between the characters to tell the story and explore intimacy, never shying away from the importance of erotic encounters to the characters within the film and to the movement at the time. Particularly important is the way in which there is no stigmatisation placed on sexual pleasure for those that are HIV positive. Enjoying themselves sexually, and in the clubs of Paris, are an important part of their lives and one that they are not denied.
Campillo shoots the sex in 120 Beats Per Minute with a closeness and eroticism that importantly convinces us of its realness and significance to the characters, but strangely when he switches to scenes in clubs there is a slight blandness. The clubbing scenes should feel more powerful but instead they come off as somewhat unremarkable.
120 Beats Per Minute is a film that feels so close to being great, but there’s always something about the way in which Campillo chooses to shoot or edit a sequence that holds it back. The film is still a vital experience though and occasionally quite brilliant, but it just shows so much promise that never quite gets delivered on.