Cannes Review: '120 Beats Per Minute'

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Sometimes a movie doesn’t need much character development to make an impact. The ensemble cast of Robin Campillo’s  AIDS activists in “120 Beats Per Minute” all work together to be the same voice. Campillo tries to create a force that resonates more in message than in any of the conventional, dramatic sparks you might find in a Hollywood drama. This is one of the most political movies to come around in quite some time. Campillo stages heated strategy sessions between the activists of ACT UP like a Godard cinematic political essay post-“La Chinoise.” The activism on display here is inspiring enough to have you all riled up to leave aside whatever you’re doing at home and try to make a difference in the world.

Campillo’s film has the members of France’s late ‘90s ACT UP movement stage riots, interventions, parade and, even, ambush pharma offices in the greater France area by throwing balloon-filled blood on windows and, even, at pharma people. It's all about the message they want to send. There isn’t any attempt here by Campillo to tell a story as much as to give us a bird’s eye view of activism at its most passionate and, yes, sometimes militant. If anything, the closest we have to a story is when one of the main characters starts dying of AIDS and Campillo switches the last half hour of the film on this character’s fight to survive. The brilliantly edited finale takes your breath away and pummels you with its raw, humane power.

Campillo hasn’t really made a splash as a director over the years, unless you count 2013’s vastly underseen, at least Stateside, “Eastern Boys.” No, instead he’s made a name for himself as the writer of Laurent Cantet’s excellent dramas, especially the masterful “The Class,” and “Time Out.“ "120 Beats Per Minute” isn’t bringing anything new to the game, its brilliant moments lie in the humanity that exists in people wanting to make a difference in the harshest of times. ACT UP is an organization that first started in the late 90’s in New York, while that city was battling the epidemic in personal, harrowing and frustrating ways, and was meant to fight AIDS and the corrupt powers that delayed any attempt at a cure.  The organization eventually built different branches, including one in France, which this film is based on.
If there is a main character in the film it is Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), a loudmouth of verbal passion that gets at the center of every debate in the group. His rebel fireworks ignite the rest of the group into wreaking havoc all across the city for the sake off change. He falls for Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a newly added member of ACT UP, who decides to join in their debates and public demonstrations. Sean and Nathan eventually start seeing each other and the sexual chemistry they have is palpably shown in brilliantly edited sequences which show the erotic fervor this couple has for each other. The intimacy Campillo displays in the sex scenes is groundbreaking for an LGBT film and recalls the similarly lengthy and explicit sequences of 2013’s Palme D’Or winning “Blue is the Warmest Color”
The aforementioned invasions, of various different pharmaceutical offices, are the highlights of the film, bringing a docu-style feel with shaky hand-held camera, the writer-director makes sure we feel the danger that comes with such tactics, especially when the cops show up and try to bend the rules of the law to send a clear cut message to the group: These kind of actions won't fly. There’s no question that Campillo fully endorses the tactics on display as he, too, was a part of a similar group back in the early 90’s. His camera seems to be backing up the group every step of the way as they embark on a mission to have their message heard loud and clear. Campillo similarly channels the group he's portraying by taking risks and never backing down, even at the most controversial of topics, all for the sake of change.