Heavily influenced and informed by the life and experiences of its director, 120 Beats Per Minute is the autobiographical and unapologetic story of life at the heart of Aids activist group Act Up-Paris, in the early nineties. Following the outbreak and ongoing epidemic, the French government were particularly slow to react and support those suffering. 120 Beats Per Minutes tells the vibrant, angry and turbulent story of the defiant activists fighting to not only be given the crucial medical information and treatment they needed to survive but to be recognised by society as a community and as one that had fallen victim to the fatal illness. The film follows a handful of the group’s leaders, front runners and loyal members through a range of aggressive, visual demonstrations and the passionate, fiery weekly meetings that determine the direction of the organisation. At the very centre of the story are Sean and Nathan. Nathan is new to Act Up-Paris whilst Sean is a longstanding, defiant member. Sean is HIV positive and Nathan is not. The two set out on an intimate, tender relationship which spans several years. The heated debate of weekly gatherings and the emotional, physical protests are sporadically broken up by captivating scenes of partying and dancing. Lasting almost two and a half hours it is remarkable that there is practically no fat that could be trimmed from 120 Beats Per Minute; a lean, cinematic marvel which has jumped right to the top of my list of the best films of the year so far.
Director Robin Campillo was once part of the world he’s bringing to the screen – and it shows. For many years Campillo was convinced he was HIV positive and therefore convinced of his own mortality. His personal testimonies are channelled through the character of Nathan who himself struggles to understand how he managed to escape a fatal diagnosis whilst those around him deteriorated quickly and painfully. There are a few particularly remarkable scenes, all containing the captivating, fragile performances of both Arnaud Valois and Nahual Pérez Biscayart. From the couple’s tender love-making to Nathan’s vulnerable, blunt monologue about a past lover, both actors are astounding. The depths to which one cares about their on-screen relationship is a direct result of their remarkable chemistry as performers and bold honesty of performance. Both Valois and Biscayart are surrounded by an impeccable supporting cast made up of both men and women. Throughout 120 Beats Per Minute we are reminded that it is not only gay men effected by Aids but women, drug addicts, prostitutes and those from across seas. I was pleasantly surprised to see women both visually and verbally visible throughout the story, represented and ever present at the heart of the fight. The film also works on an array of technical levels, from its gratifying high energy soundtrack to its smart, energetic script. It’s a film that flows beautifully and effortlessly from one scene to the next, making it hard to recall the film’s beginning, middle and end. Equal parts angry and joyous, 120 Beats Per Minute is a blazing tribute to those who led Aids activism back in 1990s Paris and those affected or taken by the cruel, stigmatised illness.
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