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What Larry Kramer’s trenchant play (and subsequent film) The Normal Heart did for the early days of AIDS activism in 1980s New York at the height of the crisis, Robin Campillo in 120 Beats Per Minute aims to do for the same subject in 1990s Paris, albeit in a more contemplative style. Drawing inspiration from his own experience as a member of frontline protest organization ACT UP, Campillo brings unquestionable conviction to his mission to ensure that the ineffectual response of Francois Mitterand’s government at the time and the refusal of French drug companies to expedite potential breakthrough treatments are not forgotten.
As he demonstrated in the animated schoolroom discussions of Cannes Palme d’Or winner The Class, which he wrote for director Laurent Cantet, a frequent collaborator, Campillo has a finely tuned ear for the volatile currents of group discussion. He also has a knack for seamlessly incorporating sociopolitical context into a dramatic canvas — evident in early scenes here when succinct references reveal that even after a decade of heavy losses, 6,000 new cases per year of HIV/AIDS were still being registered in France in the early ‘90s, double the number of the U.K. or Germany.
Where the screenwriter and editor-turned-director shows less strength is in his sense of economy and pacing. His new film acquires considerable urgency and raw emotional power in the closing stretch. But at just under two-and-a-half talky hours it’s almost maddeningly protracted, maintaining a somewhat cold intellectual approach that might have been improved by greater emphasis on the beautiful scenes of intimacy, tenderness, naked fear and helplessness that punctuate the action.
Although one of the movie’s key merits is an ensemble of not overly familiar faces that vigorously conveys the sense of a galvanized youth movement, too few of the principal figures are given the character definition to sustain such a long sit. But there’s no shortage of incisive material contained here, and a more rigorous edit would greatly improve the lovingly made production’s international prospects.
Campillo starts by intercutting a direct-action intervention during a state AIDS prevention organization conference that takes an incendiary turn, with documentary-style coverage of the weekly ACT UP meeting that immediately follows, as the critical responses of parallel groups begin coming in. One of a handful of newcomers at that meeting, Nathan (Arnaud Valois), is immediately drawn to radical militant Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), and their gently blossoming relationship gives the drama its human heartbeat.
Experiencing ACT UP’s hastily strategized disruptions through the fresh eyes of Nathan enhances the unpredictable energy of scenes like unannounced high school visits to distribute condoms and promote safer sex; or the invasion of the Paris labs of a pharmaceutical giant, splattering the walls with pouches of fake blood, mixed at home in a bathtub by young hemophiliac Marco (Theophile Ray). Marco’s mother Helene (Catherine Vinatier) is also a vocal member of the group, her indignation sparked after discovering that she had been injecting her son with infected blood provided by a hospital.
The breakthrough in protease inhibitor treatments of the mid-’90s that would gradually change HIV/AIDS from a death sentence to a more manageable illness was not far off from the time frame of Campillo’s film. But the changing lines of medical research are less a focus here than the determined push to force government, medical, pharmaceutical and insurance authorities to acknowledge and respond to the terminal condition that too many were still battling. The movie is very much about the desperate need for visibility at a time of continued marginalization, and its greatest gut-punch impact is when young, vital people are extinguished.
The trauma of a rapidly deteriorating condition is depicted first through Jeremie (Ariel Borenstein), whose fresh-faced youthfulness makes his scenes quite affecting. Later, it’s Sean whose body begins slowly to give out. That drives him increasingly into solitude, sapping the firebrand spirit that often makes him a contentious presence at meetings, causing friction in particular with the more pragmatically political ACT UP president Thibault (Antoine Reinartz). Even at more than two decades’ distance, the horrifying image of bodies wasting away, marked by the crimson blight of Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions, remains a sharp slap in the face of indifference.
Campillo (co-writing with fellow ACT UP alum Philippe Mangeot) arguably returns at least once or twice too often to the meetings, loading up on more quarrelsome debate where the narrative seems to demand deepened personal investment. But the crescendo of feeling in the film’s final half-hour is undeniable, and the potential melodrama of one character’s brave choice of compassionate euthanasia is handled with admirable restraint. Even more affecting are the waves of ACT UP members arriving at the home of one of their number soon after his death, rallying around his mother and lover while steadfastly refraining from the standard platitudes in occasions of grief. Just the range of reactions caught on characters’ faces alone here is wrenching stuff.
Though some of the principal cast like Reinartz and rising star Adele Haenal as another core member might have benefited from more fully developed roles, the group dynamic is well-drawn, both in the force of its united front and its more combative moments of infighting.
The most three-dimensional figures to emerge, however, are Valois’ sensitive, straightforward Nathan and especially Biscayart’s thornier Sean. The Argentinean actor, at one time a member of New York’s famed experimental theater company The Wooster Group, is a wildly charismatic presence, and his Sean gives the movie a molten center. Scenes in which Sean and Nathan share their romantic histories, as new partners invariably do, have an appealing delicacy and quietness amid so much heated discussion, revealing a lot about their fundamental differences, among them Nathan’s HIV-negative status.
Veteran cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie, who also shot Campillo’s shape-shifting love-story thriller, Eastern Boys, captures the meetings in a stark light that befits their colorless institutional venue. But there are gorgeous visual interludes throughout in which the widescreen frame, bristling with the nervous excitement of protest scenes, explodes into exuberant dance floor breaks set to pounding house music, and frequently from there into transporting bouts of sex. (Campillo also edited, orchestrating those sinuous transitions.)
At other times, the dance floor adrenaline rush dissolves into dust particles or specks of light that transform into a labyrinth of blood cells, an image both literal and poetic. Along with Arnaud Rebotini’s electronic music, there’s also punchy use of the Bronski Beat classic “Smalltown Boy,” a landmark gay pop anthem that harks back with poignancy to the earlier days of the AIDS struggle.
Production companies: Les Films de Pierre, France 3 Cinema, Page 114, Memento Films Production, FD Production
Cast: Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adele Haenel, Antoine Reinartz, Felix Maritaud, Ariel Borenstein, Aloise Sauvage, Simon Bourgade, Medhi Toure, Simon Guelat, Coralie Russier, Catherine Vinatier, Theophile Ray, Jerome Clement-Wilz, Jean-Francois Auguste, Saadia Bentaieb
Director-editor: Robin Campillo
Screenwriters: Robin Campillo, Philippe Mangeot
Producers: Hugues Charbonneau, Marie-Ange Luciani
Director of photography: Jeanne Lapoirie
Production designer: Emmanuelle Duplay
Costume designer: Isabelle Pannetier
Music: Arnaud Rebotini
Casting: Sarah Tepper, Leila Fournier
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Films Distribution
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