“120 Beats per Minute”, a Lust for Life

Director Robin Campillo follows the struggle of Act Up-Paris, an advocacy group founded in Paris in 1989 to combat the AIDS crisis, inspired by the original New York organization. The movie, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes and has been chosen to represent France at the 2018 Oscars, will be released in U.S. theaters on October 20.

The movie is set in the early 1990s, when combination therapy did not yet exist. Contracting AIDS therefore implied a swiftly enacted death sentence. In the face of the French government’s indifference and the sluggish progress of pharmaceutical companies, the Act Up-Paris militants decide to devote themselves to hard-hitting activism. Their objective is to speed up research, raise public awareness, and lift the taboos surrounding sexuality and drugs. Some of the members are already ill, while others are only carriers of the virus. The activists include homosexuals, heterosexuals, infected hemophiliacs, and everyone commits themselves to their shared struggle despite a number of disagreements.

In making this movie, Robin Campillo (who directed Eastern Boys and the successful French film Les Revenants, which was adapted into a television series) drew inspiration from his time as an activist for Act Up-Paris. Campillo avoids creating a sterile reproduction of events, instead taking audiences to the very core of this collective commitment. Portraying street protests and spectacular happenings, emotionally-charged meetings and wild parties, the movie transmits the lust for life and need to love experienced by these young people left by the wayside. Speech is a cornerstone of the story, and Act Up-Paris members are not afraid to express themselves. The scenes in which participants argue and clash over the group’s strategies are some of the movie’s finest.

Remaining dignified and humble until the end, the film grips viewers with the quality of its striking dialogues and the fluidity of its narration. The focus gradually shifts from the collective adventure to the individual story of Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), whose radical attitude and passion fascinate Nathan (Arnaud Valois), one of the group’s new members. Through this duo, the pace of the story slows to convey the intimacy of their star-crossed love.

Article published in the November 2017 issue of France-Amérique.

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