120 BPM – Review *****

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It seems that it is not just American filmmakers right now who are turning to the past in order to interrogate the present. However, unlike Spielberg’s The Post, which draws from a classical Hollywood style and highlights moral dilemma in service of tension, Robin Campillo’s 90’s set docudrama is a sensitive, achingly real portrayal of what it means to be on the frontlines of change – of the personal sacrifices that are needed to make a difference in the political and social landscape of any time period. But more than this, BPM is a deep breath of a film, exhaling characters into existence so vividly that, at times, you forget about the political motives of the people on screen and see them as desperate, flawed but unequivocally human.

The slow-burn panic of the AIDS crisis within the gay community is presented here through the eyes of the young men and women of ACT UP, an organisation that fought to keep alive the hope of recovery through the use of non-violent protests before the turn of the century. Campillo initially uses handsome newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois) as a surrogate for the audience, dropping him into his first meeting where the very specific and democratic rules and motivations of ACT UP are laid out clearly. However, the use of a clever narrative device in which we flash back to different points of view in order to find out what went wrong at their most recent protest quickly shows us that disharmony and discontent exist even within the most connected and progressive grouping of individuals. Still, Nathan continues to grow closer to his friends and fellow activists, falling in love with flamboyant Sean (played by the irresistibly energetic Nahuel Perez Biscart) along the way but soon the excitement and camaraderie surrounding him begins to dissipate into the grim reality faced by the gay community of the time.

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Energy is everything in BPM. The script ebbs and flows with wit and angst, nobody is treated like a caricature and, much like the debates that occur within the group’s meeting space, every man and woman in the film is given the opportunity to showcase themselves without being drowned out. If the audience isn’t dropped into the middle of a heated protest with bodies tearing through laboratories in search of medical results, then we are swaying through an illuminated dance floor, engulfed by the ecstasy of drugs and the momentary promise of hope and happiness. It is these club scenes, filmed with an expressive extravagance and scattered throughout the film’s 140 minute running time, which act as palette cleansers for audience and characters alike. They are a reminder that, even when it feels as though the world is falling apart at the seams, these characters can lose themselves in the physicality of a larger living organism, a swathe of people who share a common goal, for a short sweet time.

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This physicality and energy applies to the sex scenes as well, which are used sparingly but effectively. One of the highlights of the film is an extended bedroom sequence between Nathan and Sean in which they make love for the first time. The tension for the audience comes from knowing that Sean is HIV positive (and seeing how the two of them navigate this issue) but this anticipation and eroticism soon makes way for intrigue and characterisation as the two men discuss their first experiences with the AIDS crisis. Campillo’s patience and reluctance to cut away after orgasm, as well as the way he shoots in semi-darkness and intense close-up, deserves a lot of credit in terms of making the situation entirely relatable and ultimately very moving. Later on during a sexually charged moment in a hospital bed, you remember their first night together and truly realise how much has been lost from inaction, greed and homophobia.

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There is no doubt that the final portion of the film feels entirely disparate from the first couple of hours in everything but story. The previous palette of bright colour and vivacity makes way for the sterility of hospitals and the dreariness of a long, painful death. It would be crass to point to this sudden shift as an easy directorial choice for an typical emotional denouement as Campillo allows the heavy odour of a heartbreaking loss to hang in the air longer than we feel comfortable with. In fact, the whole film is a subtle breaking of filmic conventions that may make us feel simultaneously uncomfortable yet somehow more connected to the subjects it is so affectionate for. A bold achievement that will most likely not get the recognition it truly deserves, it is nevertheless is a film that everybody involved with should be proud of and will undoubtedly propel some of the immense talent here higher into the cinematic consciousness.

120BPM will be released in cinemas on 6 April 2018 by Curzon

Steven Ryder is a Film and TV graduate and a quintessentially British lover of film in that he never really watches British films. Moderator of one of the internet's largest film discussion forums, TrueFilm, Steven is dedicated to lurching between trash and high art, often resulting in a cinematic whiplash of sorts.