You can’t split responsibility.
At one point during Robin Campillo‘s 120 battements par minute [BPM (Beats per Minute)] a high school girl tells a group of ACT UP Paris members that she doesn’t have to worry about AIDS because she’s not gay. It’s a horrific glimpse at the unconscionable lack of information sexually active teenagers were provided at the height of the disease epidemic during the early 1990s. To see her confident incredulity is to see the danger of ignorance and the importance of self-made, self-educated, and unfortunately mainly HIV-positive groups to disseminate the truth and risks when the government wouldn’t. These young adults saddled by a death sentence they cannot even dream of overturning became experts because no one else would. They fought because their lives quite literally depended on it.
Campillo and co-writer Philippe Mangeot were there on the frontlines and therefore remember all that happened whether heated debates between ACT UP Paris’ non-violent core and the “radicals” frustrated by how little was being done despite their T4 cells depleting fast. They’ve taken those experiences and crafted them into a look back at that trying time with as much historical significance and meaning as bittersweet romance. We receive an inside glimpse at the “war room”—the group’s weekly meetings—to understand the push and pull, but also at the intimate moments shared between two members in love (one “Poz” and one “Neg”). It’s through these parallel threads along the same journey that we’re forced to confront the ever-opposing dynamic between humanity and profit, altruistic charity and selfish desire.
Those two lovers become the perfect entry point towards this understanding with one a fresh-faced newcomer (Arnaud Valois‘ Nathan) who’s somehow been spared by the disease (thus far) and the other a gradually wasting away veteran (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart‘s Sean) who’s been fighting since age fifteen and thus very much allowed to feel his mix of promise and futility. It’s an “outsider” of sorts—a “Neg” gay man who does feel AIDS is an issue he must acknowledge as part of that lifestyle regardless of his status—and a “Poz” soldier who’s become numb to the reality that very few undiagnosed citizens care about his plight. The former sees ACT UP as a necessary institution to educate people like him while the latter believes it’s no longer enough.
Nathan allows us to see a sick man most of the population reviles as a human worthy of empathy. His eyes open us to Sean’s plight as more than a statistic or nightmare. Where people move away from them on the subway because their clothes are drenched in fake blood from a political stunt, Nathan inches closer to Sean knowing the risk. He refuses to let the disease prevent him from caring about this man he eventually loves so deeply. Nathan reminds Sean (and us) that AIDS isn’t a way for God to expunge our world of the people we fear (LGBTQ, drug addicts, prostitutes, etc.). His actions ensure we know its horrors transcend its largest demographics. It displays the preciousness of life, not the cheapening of it.
The film’s best scenes are therefore those shared between Nathan and Sean. When they’re together—either privately or with the ACT UP gang—they open up and let vulnerability shine. One wild scene of them telling stories of their past while together in bed merges past and present in a visually disorienting way that proves unforgettable. It’s a sex scene preaching safe sex and pure feeling between two men that suddenly morphs into the memory of each man’s first sexual encounter with a “Poz” partner. It’s as though other men are joining them in bed, but really it’s three separate moments wrapped in one for this poetic exchange comparing and contrasting experiences steeped in knowledge and blindness. Their defenses disappear even if they inevitably return the next day.
Second to these intimate sequences of joy and pain once the disease takes hold are those of ACT UP in the field wreaking havoc. With Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) and Sophie (Adèle Haenel) leading the charge, these activists toe the line between peace and violence in response to pharma companies, government officials, and public parades. They prove in their rhetoric that they aren’t just angry kids looking for attention, but educated individuals being left to die by people who automatically dismiss them as being unable to understand the economic games they’re playing behind the scenes. And maybe they overstep their bounds sometimes. Maybe they make assumptions that aren’t necessarily true. But until the target of their wrath tells them what’s really happening, they can’t afford being silent.
These exchanges make up the majority of BPM whether Nathan and Sean become its lead characters or not. As such there are many dense dialogue-driven scenes depicting those weekly meetings of debate before and after each protest. So non-French-speaking viewers should be prepared for a lot of reading because these conversations are long and yet extremely important as far as comprehending where ACT UP is coming from and the underhanded maneuvers performed by those in a position to help. There’s a lot of back and forth too with overlapping speech that may lead you to miss some words here or there if not completely render your ability to watch the characters themselves impossible. Luckily these scenes are in a classroom wherein the words are more important than actions.
And when expressions and body language do prove vital, the talk lessens. We get a chance to meet each and everyone of these heroes whether tough-talkers like Max (Félix Maritaud), way too young “Pozs” like Marco (Théophile Ray), or passionate intellectuals willing to go toe-to-toe with other members when internal lines are crossed like his mother Hélène (Catherine Vinatier). There are just as many politics in that room as there are outside it since their chairman Thibault is much more practical and mission-driven than the growing number of opposing entities growing anxious about the lack of traction won. But no matter how hot blood runs in the moment, they’re all in the same boat. Their endgame remains an atmosphere where a cure can exist.
Campillo would have a winner on his hands with this historical fiction alone and yet he goes further to create that nucleus of Nathan and Sean to show the emotional cost removed from politics. It’s only in death that we see rhetoric dissolve in lieu of impassioned feeling. And this goes beyond Valois and Biscayart. While they play their roles with unparalleled humanity to let the pain be felt by the audience, the others are able to detach “work” from “friendship” even if the two are so intrinsically combined. Characters might not always want it—empathy often seen as pity in their eyes—but it’s a necessary truth for us to understand the community-based war being fought. These men and women became their own best advocates for change.
courtesy of TIFF