120 BPM (2018) – Review

Director: Robin Campillo
Starring: Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adele Haenel, Antoine Reinartz

The Overview
Members of the advocacy group ACT UP Paris demand action by the government and pharmaceutical companies to combat the AIDS epidemic in the early 1990s. (Source: IMDb)

The Review
120 BPM (beats per minute) is a film which feels incredibly vital, so much so that it should be the sort of film that everyone seeks out, however it also the sort of film which is incredibly difficult to sell to the average cinema goer. Focusing on the ACT UP group based in Paris in the 1990s, there is a sense of great injustice, of a forgotten generation who are desperately trying to convince those in power that the AIDS crisis is one which can no longer go unnoticed. It is dramatized, but there is a powerful sense of realism, the characters feel and act in real and understandable ways, making this film feel like a piece of history, and even documentary-like in places.

This is deliberately provocative film-making and a raw, frank, and honest depiction of a very real epidemic. Whilst it has its moments of joy – the pulsating nightclub scenes evoking that sense of freedom and respite – the juxtaposition of life and death is powerfully portrayed. The somber and intensely emotional second half has a rawness to it that is hard to put into words. It is a difficult watch, but it needs to be, and it does a fantastic job of highlighting the struggle, and the massive injustice faced by those suffering with AIDS. The characters are full of fight, drive, and passion for the cause, motivated by the desire to see change, before it is too late.

This is definitely an ensemble piece, but the two leads Nahuel Perez Biscayart and Arnaud Valois as doomed lovers Sean and Nathan, are particularly excellent. The physical performance of Nahuel Perez Biscayart as Sean in particular, is totally breathtaking. Whilst this character’s arc is a tragic one, it is also one with great humour, resilience, and strength.

To find a fault in this film, it would be that perhaps it is a little too long. Particularly towards the end, there are moments when it dwells uncomfortably long in places and if anything, is too intense. However, this does feel necessary, and it ensures the film has a resonance long after the silent credits roll.

The Verdict
I saw this movie and you should too. 120 BPM is a film which stays with you for life, even if it is not one you would want to revisit in a hurry. Some of the visuals are incredibly striking and memorable, etching themselves into your brain, along with the incredibly powerful performances. This is exceptional film-making from Robin Campillo who manages to perfectly strike that balance between hope and despair. Full of anger and protest, this is a film about broken and frustrated people in a fight which isn’t always unified, but is always overflowing with a vehement desire not to see history repeat itself. This is a powerful, important, difficult, provocative, and necessary film; go and see it. 

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