120 BPM is a faithful portrait of 1990s AIDS activism

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

120 BPM
March 15–18

RPL Film Theatre

Even though socialist Francois Mitterrand was firmly in power in early ’90s France, his presidency’s response to the AIDS epidemic wasn’t any better than the Reagan/Bush combo in the U.S. or the Tories in the UK. Information was lacking (the belief HIV could only be transmitted among homosexuals and drug addicts was widespread) and questionable behavior by pharmaceutical companies went unchecked and unpunished.

The superb 120 BPM chronicles the battle of the Paris chapter of ACT UP against the government, Big Pharma and half-truths in general. The French division was far from disciplined: personal agendas were at play, strategies clashed and prevention and treatment were at odds due to limited resources. And yet, rarely did anybody quit: activism was the community’s only option, especially with companies that didn’t have their best interest at heart.

I would’ve been satisfied with an entire movie dedicated to ACT UP planning and execution meetings, but 120 BPM also puts a face on the struggle. Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) is a charismatic activist who’s more confrontational than his peers, who finds love with Nathan (Arnaud Valois), an HIV-negative ally of the movement. Their story underlines that even in the direst of circumstances they’re more than one-note rabble-rousers.

Director Robin Campillo (The Class) aims for a naturalistic approach (while not recreations, the events depicted on screen have real-life inspirations) and succeeds thanks to an uniformly excellent cast. 120 BPM doesn’t shy away from the unsavoury aspect of the crusade, such as the level of aggressiveness and the challenges that come with managing a vastly diverse base. That said, there is no question which side is in the right.

Ironically, the interstitials that give the movie its title (after wearisome, frustrating days, the activists lose themselves to house music) are a flourish that doesn’t quite mesh with the hardnosed realism. It’s a minor blemish. 120 BPM captures a moment of recent history with all its complexities, highs and lows, and preserves an emotional core. Very few films pull that off.