Robin Campillo’s 120 battements par minute opens with a shocking scene. During an intervention by ACT UP Paris at a pharmaceutical conference, the key speaker is splashed by a balloon filled with fake blood and handcuffed. At the next meeting held in a college lecture classroom, those events are discussed and some are pointing fingers at Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, the film’s most accomplished performance), the young man who threw the balloon with fake blood. But Sean is unapologetic, his health is declining and there is no time for diplomacy. At the meetings there are many HIV-positive (called “poz” by the members) gay men, concerned lesbians, straight women and a mother and her poz son. They all have different positions about how to force government and big pharma CEO’s to listen to them. For a while 120 battements par minute feels like a procedural. In addition to the lively meetings, we also witness some interventions/protests. In one of them, ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to unleash power) take over the offices of a pharmaceutical company, they confront the employees and spray fake blood on the wall. In another one they go to a school with pamphlets and condoms and demand to speak to the students and even stage a kiss-in. This is the early 1990’s and there was no cure for AIDS yet. So we forget how in-your-face ACT UP was. But some people were dying and there was no time to waste being nice. And then the film gradually veers to the more intimate and personal love story between Sean and Nathan (Arnaud Valois, a young handsome actor who, with Biscayart, is the film’s pulsating heart), a new member of ACT UP. In a long bedroom scene, that is the film’s centrepiece, they make love, they talk about their first love as we flashback to those moments, and they also talk about sex and love. Theirs is a tragic story, and there have been plenty in our collective memories since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. There are some stunning moments of pure magic beauty. During a scene at a disco club, Campillo and Jeanne Lapoirie, his director of photography, let the camera focus on the dust dancing on the dance floor. The dust become cells dancing under the microscope. Or in that extended love-making scene where the camera concentrate on the beautiful naked bodies of two young lovers. If 120 battements par minute can be at times didactic, it is never pretentious. It is a passionate, gut wrenching film about love and death.
Plays at Ottawa’s ByTowne Cinema on February 20 & 21
120 battements par minute (Beats per minute)
Nahuel Pérez Biscayart
In French with English subtitles.