Review: 120 Battements Par Minute (Beats Per Minute)

It’s not hard to see why this film swooped the French Cesars this year and took out the top prize. 120 Battements Par Minute is a supreme example of a film that’s palpably alive on screen. Impassioned performances and exhilarating execution abound as we traverse the tragedy and rebellion of the AIDS crisis in Paris as told through the eyes of ACT UP. A hands down absolute must see!

The history of HIV/AIDS, it’s terrifying origins and heartbreaking death toll in the 1980s is a cautionary tale not only on how quickly a virus can spread and devastate us, but how societal prejudice and bigotry is just as fatal. When the AIDS crisis began to develop in the Western World around 1981 (though cases and deaths go further back into the 1970s), appearing in gay men who presented with extremely rare diseases & infections (PCP, Karposi Sarcoma), it was labeled GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) and was veritably untreatable. As men began to die, along with it came a lack of action on the part of governments to adequately fund and support medicine in trying to treat this new superbug. As cases began to appear across the globe and infection rates soared, so did the politicising and persecution of AIDS patients and gay people along with the public hysteria of a disease that no-one fully understood.

In times of great oppression rise people willing to bring the fight to the street. Enter ACT UP. Founded in the U.S. and establishing chapters in Europe, ACT UP were a radical, raucous group of political activists that marched on governments, picketed pharmaceutical companies, stormed public lecture events, organised public stunts to bring attention to AIDS and the lack of support, funding, and access to medications that people needed.

It’s within the Parisian chapter of ACT UP, some 10 years into the crisis (and thousands upon thousands of deaths), where we lay our scene.

Filmed almost entirely with the confines of a lecture theatre, it is astonishing at how engaging and fully of vitality 120 Battements Par Minute is. Director Robin Campillo (Eastern Boys, They Come Back) populates his frame with fierce and fiery personalities, brimming with life as most all of them face certain death from the disease they carry. This irony is not lost on them, they are their most anxious, angry, vital, and energetic as they stare down at their own mortality. Yet it’s this very premise that stokes the fire that keeps this band of rebels engaged.

Among them are sympathisers, parents, newly diagnosed, long termers, and we join the crew as a new group of initiates join the team. Of central focus is Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a new member whose attention is caught by the most outspoken and voracious in the group – Sean (Cesar Award winner Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). Through lively debate, radical public action, and intimate conversations, they forge a relationship which anchors the film to a personal level.

What makes the film such a vibrant and alive experience is what is framed around it. The internal arguments, the impassioned pleas, the clubbing, the urgency, the sincerity and, most of all, the pulsing humanity that charges from the scene is intoxicating to behold.

The screenplay holds the key, written by Robin Campillo and Philippe Mangeot, and it is a powderkeg of raging humanity. As tumultuous, emotionally charged, vivacious, riotous, horny, angry, and conflicted as life itself can be – 120 Battements Par Minute runs the full gamut of it all and puts a human face on a situation that should never be forgotten to the halls of history.

120 Battements Par Minute is an outstanding piece of cinema. It feels palpable, urgent and alive.It moves along with a propulsive vitality that you can’t ignore. Brimming with talent both infront and behind the camera, it’s a hard film to shake off and reminds you what power cinema holds.