by Kirsty Jones
Robin Campillo’s latest feature, 120 BPM, is a retelling of ACT UP Paris’ campaign to demand action from the French government and pharmaceutical companies to combat the AIDS epidemic.
ACT UP was originally formed in New York in 1987, with its main purpose being to impact the lives of those with AIDS and to also to bring about legislation, medical research and treatment and policies to bring an end to the disease. Bearing in mind, this is in the days before social media shares and trending hashtags; the movement took drastic measures with the intention of shocking the conservative masses. It’s in the Paris faction of the organisation that Campillo introduces us to a group of passionate individuals who have taken up the ACT UP mantra with vigour and an unsympathetic attitude that is typical of eighties activism.
Nathan is part of a group of newcomers to ACT UP, and after seeing the fallout from a protest gone wrong, is quickly initiated into the ways of the organisation. As further revolts unfold, we get a taste of how far the group are willing to go, both shocking and satisfying when it goes right, and devastating when it doesn’t. It’s viewing that will really scratch that itch of anyone with a fervent social conscience and an appetite for demonstrating. Unafraid of persecution from authorities, the group continues their ‘in your face’ action, using each hurdle to spur them further on.
And it’s against this backdrop, amid fake blood and handcuffs that a tender story emerges, a story of loss and survival in the face of illness. These hardened characters reveal themselves to be vulnerable and scared of what this terrible virus will bring them. It’s in this light that Robin captures the true bravery of the ACT UP activists, the ability to turn their tragedy into the driving force to save others from a similar fate.
The cast, who will be largely unknown to a UK audience, are phenomenal; with the two leads, Arnaud Valois (The Girl on the Train, Charlie Says) and Nahuel Perez Biscayart (Glue, All Yours,) keeping their feet firmly in the limelight. The on-screen chemistry between the pair is electric at times, but with a depth that draws the audience into the world the two shares. Another stand out throughout is Adèle Haenel (Love at First Fight, House of Tolerance), embodying the gritted determination of the ACT UP movement, whilst being both hot-headed and warm-hearted.
Sure, the message of prevailing friendship and hope may be a familiar one, but Campillo captures it with a rawness that is truly moving and memorable. Ultimately, I was left with a sense of mourning, a feeling that seems appropriate given that AIDS remains a political crisis and its victims continue to be stigmatised.
ACT UP persevere in their fight to this day. Take a look at the latest from ACT UP London.
120 BPM is out 6th April!