When it comes to films about the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which had its beginnings over 35 years ago (yes, it’s been that long), it’s instructive to see how different countries have dealt with the subject. Hollywood gave us the execrably tasteful ‘Philadelphia’, which I always think of as ‘An Officer and a Gentleman 2’, independent US cinema gave us the excellent ‘Longtime Companion’, ‘Angels in America’ (which should have been released in cinemas) and ‘The Dallas Buyers Club’.
The UK managed to get out a film about activists helping miners in ‘Pride’ which played out more like ‘The Full Monty’. Meanwhile France came up with ‘120 BPM’, the title reference uniting beats per minute in electronic dance music and a heart beating faster. Its director Robin Campillo was involved in the ‘Act Up’ activism movement exported from the US to the UK and Paris, and his film follows the Parisienne arm fighting to inform the public and badger the corporations into releasing information.
The first shock is seeing how well organised they are. Their meetings are rigidly controlled and locked into a non-violent agenda, but talking only goes so far. By the time they’re storming pharmaceutical companies armed with balloons full of (fake) blood their members are questioning how they can best be heard without being demonised by the police and the public.
What can you do when companies tell you to wait another year of two years, and you’re already out of time? You fight back with every possible means at your disposal, even if it means risking everything. The film also charts the love affair of two activists. Sean is sick, Nathan is healthy, and it’s Nathan who will care for his dying partner, partly out of guilt over an earlier loss.
One of the most remarkable things about this epic, detailed film staged in lengthy set-pieces is how it so smoothly blends politics, activism, realism, love, sex and death together with dreamlike moments. When Nathan stands at the edge of a dance floor watching, he sees motes of dust turning into cancerous cells, replicating as naturally as life itself.
Key to the story also is the strength of the women involved in Act Up, and two mothers of sick sons. It feels entirely up to date, addressing the concerns which are sweeping the world right now as people question governments and corporations. There are small detail that will stick with me; after the terrible death of her son, one mother has trouble reassembling the fold-out bed she’s been sleeping on, and is helped by his friends. This and other similar moments can only come from experience.
The biggest problem is subject matter; tell someone they can see a two-hour+ subtitled film about activism and they’ll behave like the schoolgirl in the film who refuses a condom, saying that they’re for faggots. ‘120 BPM’ won the Grand Prix in Cannes and swept the Césars, the French film awards, but still fared poorly in big overseas markets like the US. Perhaps now is not the time to sell in compassion.