Quietly epic, sad but never sentimental, and blissfully at ease with sex as life not death, ‘120 Beats Per Minute’ throws us into the debates and protests of Act-Up Paris, an Aids awareness campaigning group in early 1990s Paris. We follow Act-Up at their weekly meetings, at Gay Pride and during direct actions – in the offices of a medical research company, in a school playground and in the middle of a politician’s speech. Alongside its very public dramas and deft portrayal of group solidarity, the film leans in on one campaigner, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), as he falls in love with fellow activist Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and comes to terms with his own diagnosis and mortality.
‘120 Beats’ is written and directed by Robin Campillo, who co-wrote 2008’s Palme d’Or-winning ‘The Class’, and the chatty, lively mass meetings here will be familiar if you remember that earlier film’s sparkling classroom debate. With long scenes of discussion and collective action, this is an ensemble piece that honours and remembers a milestone of social activism. If that sounds dull, it isn’t: these are a colourful, funny, engaged bunch, and their humour lightens the film’s inevitable march toward death.
Campillo’s film has a furious forward momentum that’s inspired by the determination of its characters and bolstered by Arnaud Rebotini’s house-music score. But that same forward movement is occasionally shackled and slowed down by the weight of mourning and loss. This sagging of the shoulders – the lows after the highs – feels appropriate and true, of course, but coupled with some meandering of the story it means that the film can lag and stall. It’s in its more private moments that ‘120 Beats’ excels. The sex scenes between Sean and Nathan are beautifully handled, and the film’s final chapter is a sensitive and poignant reminder of what the political fight is in the end all about – love and life and death.