Directed by Robin Campillo
Reviewed by John Francis Leonard
120 BPM is a stunningly powerful and creative piece of filmmaking documenting the ACT UP movement in Paris during the early nineties. There is a long tradition of dissidents taking to the streets of the City of Lights and effecting change, from the French Revolutionaries to the Communards. ACT UP followed in the footsteps of those political movements, taking their cause to the streets of Paris and literally fighting for their lives. This film documents those who fought, and sometimes died, bringing awareness, prevention, and treatment of a deadly disease to the attention of a nation in a time of much indifference. It’s an important part of our history and a reminder to us all that the disease, and our reaction to it, wasn’t confined to New York and San Francisco here in the states.
Much of the film’s action alternates between the group’s weekly and sometimes contentious meetings and their protests at AIDS conferences, at pharmaceutical companies, Paris Gay Pride celebrations, and even a French high school. At the heart of the film is the romantic relationship between the two main protagonists. There’s Sean, a poz member of ACT UP who’s getting sicker by the day, and the HIV-negative Nathan, who is learning about the disease at the side of the man he’s falling in love with. Their touching relationship, with Nathan beautifully filling an increasing role as caregiver to Sean, provides the emotional ballast of the piece.
Emotions run high in the group as a whole. Many are simply running out of time and the pharmaceutical companies they are most often going to battle with are dragging their feet just as much as their ancillaries and parent companies did here in the States. Anyone familiar with the ACT UP movement in New York at the time will readily recognize both the triumphs and the frustrations this group faced. This is a creative piece of filmmaking and shows that the best films don’t always rely on the biggest budgets. It was shown to much acclaim at Cannes, winning the Grand Prix, and is France’s contender for Best Foreign Film at the 2018 Academy Awards. Any time a light can be shone on material dealing with the fight against AIDS and the revolutionary group ACT UP, it is always a victory. The fight, and the stigma, are not yet over.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.