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New to Netflix - 120 BEATS PER MINUTE

120 Beats Per Minute review
Chronicle of the lives of a group of young Parisian activists at the height of the AIDS era.

Review by John Bennett

Directed by: Robin Campillo

Starring: Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adele Haenel, Antoine Reinartz

120 BEATS PER MINUTE film poster

There is a specific kind of satisfaction to be had from watching a movie about a social justice struggle. In movies where characters fight for labour rights, for environmental protection, for gender equality etc., an audience feels surrogate solidarity with the characters as they win a fight against an unjust system. Still, this sort of movie often falls into the trap of being on-the-nose and of oversimplifying the complexities of whatever issue they deal with, rendering them enjoyable but forgettable.

French writer/director Robin Campillo is perhaps best remembered for having collaborated on the screenplay for Laurent Cantet’s The Class, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2008. Though The Class is good, I would venture to categorise it as a worthwhile but forgettable film. Campillo’s new film, 120 Beats Per Minute, which chronicles activists’ struggles at the height of the AIDS epidemic, happily avoids such traps. It’s a compelling work of social engagement that’s also a generous, rapturous, cinematic experience - one that you’ll revisit regularly in your mind for years to come.

120 Beats Per Minute review

Campillo’s excellent film details the inner-workings of the Paris-based chapter of ACT UP, an advocacy group dedicated to raising awareness of AIDS, encouraging safe sexual practices, and staging non-violent protests against the French government and large pharmaceutical companies, both of which callously spurned working to find meaningful solutions to a disease that was ravaging the LGBT community.

120 Beats Per Minute immerses us in the technicalities of the group’s execution of ambitious protests. An intro scene features ACT UP leaders orienting new members (which the audience members tacitly become) regarding their rules and practices. One guiding idea is that regardless of one’s HIV status, in the eyes of the public, you must consider yourself HIV positive to be a member - a rule that immediately makes ACT UP allies out of the film’s audience as it goes on to explore the group’s deliberations, the creative protests themselves, and the race-against-the-clock desperation experienced by many ACT UP members afflicted with the disease. As the film progresses, we get a greater understanding of the formidable institutions that the group is up against, a greater understanding of its members’ own internal ideological differences, and a greater understanding of the personal lives of characters whom we first meet only at a glance in the large classroom that serves as the group’s meeting place.

120 Beats Per Minute review

In crafting the narrative of 120 Beats Per Minute, Campillo takes a few risks that have big emotional payoffs. The first is that it’s more about the pain of injustice that necessitates a struggle than the struggle itself. In a lot of social issue movies, even the best ones (12 Angry Men, The Organizer, The Magdalene Sisters), the final reel depicts some substantial moral victory - but the climax of Campillo’s film, as may be expected in a drama about AIDS, is the death of one of the principal characters. What sets 120 Beats Per Minute apart from other social issue films is that it doesn’t seek to give the audience the satisfaction of witnessing the fruits of a social justice victory; instead showing that the struggle has to be fought indefinitely.

The other narrative feat pulled off by Campillo’s film is its seemingly seamless inclusion of both macrocosmic and intimate storylines. At its outset, 120 Beats Per Minute appears as though it will strictly recount the story of the ACT UP movement as a group, a straightforward chronicle of its motivations, its strategies, its infighting, its tragedy, and its inspiring tenacity. Imperceptibly, organically, the film hones some of its focus on the budding romance between Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) and Nathan (Arnaud Valois), two of the group’s members. The inclusion of both general and precise sets of narratives gives 120 Beats Per Minute great emotional scope. Its fight-the-power depiction of urgent activism and its touching, deeply romantic love story exist somewhat separately, but the two threads play off of each other in brilliant ways. In one scene that skillfully blends both stories, Sean and Nathan share personal stories during a 10-minute break at a contentious ACT UP meeting. The meeting is filmed in long and medium takes that naturalistically capture the collaborative nature of the meeting. In the same room, Campillo transforms the scene into a gentle, personal dialogue between the new lovers, filming them in tight two-shots that shut out the rest of the meeting. He goes back to showing us the big picture when the meeting resumes. This combination of narrative modes richly diversifies the film and reminds us of the essential human heart of ACT UP’s mission.

120 Beats Per Minute review

In many ways, 120 Beats Per Minute shares the documentary-inspired style of The Class. The ACT UP meetings are executed with a high degree of naturalism. Campillo's bobbing, hand-held images pair well with audio that seeks to capture the cacophonous shouting of ACT UP members voicing disparate (if equally cogent) opinions. The group’s creative protests are executed the same way. Yet every now and then, Campillo punctuates the romance and drama with highly stylised scenes of the members of the group at raves. These poetic moments seem to exist outside of reality; their ethereal electronic soundscapes, their expressive use of light and shadow, and their exuberant choreography all underscore the significance of the work the group is doing and the intensity of the passions the characters feel. In the film’s breathtakingly beautiful finale, Campillo takes the film’s final heartbreaking protest and creatively blends it into a final rave scene. It’s a sequence that captures and syncs the essences of the struggle for justice, of personal tragedy, and of love for filmmaking into a harmonious, rapturous finale. Even writing this, it’s hard for me not to tear up at the hopeful, tragic, subtly intense perfection of 120 Beats Per Minute’s final moments.

Aided by its smart construction and light stylisation, 120 Beats Per Minute paints a portrait of a movement with a wide-ranging palette of emotions. When certain members of ACT UP turn on a member who is a mother of an infected son, we feel the frustration felt on both sides of the argument; when ACT UP throws fake blood in a pharmaceutical office, we feel the protestors’ frightened elation; when they storm a school to give safe-sex info to students, we feel anger at one teacher’s shocked, bitter response and joy at another teacher’s gladly yielding the floor (“Listen to this kids, it’s important,” she says immediately); when Sean and Nathan begin their romance, we feel the slow burn of their passion; and when characters die, as some inevitably will under these heartbreaking circumstances, we grieve along with their friends and family. Deceptively rich, eternally important, 120 Beats Per Minute is without a doubt a film you should seek out and pay attention to.

120 Beats Per Minute is on Netflix UK/ROI now.