Cannes 2017 review: 120 battements par minute (Robin Campillo)

There are very few things that could be a more worrying characteristic of a community than complacency. The world doesn’t change for the better when people are comfortable: it usually requires a crisis for people to wake up. Robin Campillo’s 120 battements par minute, a reflection on the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, is not only a loving, historical epitaph to the efforts and suffering of men and women who could not afford to be complacent, but a reminder and exhortation to a sheltered generation of what can happen when people do not act with caution, and how much commitment is required to overcome.

120 battements par minute begins as a character study of a community in the midst of a brisk race against the clock, who were not simply content to fight for their lives, but to claim their rights and validate their humanity. ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), an organization defending the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS, was founded in New York in 1987 during the rise of the AIDS pandemic. These people and their loved ones were dying, and not enough was being done to stop it. Instead of surrendering to complacency, and instead of just hoping for progress to come, ACT UP actively took control of their destinies, each member living politics in the first person.

After a political protest goes awry, the Parisian chapter of ACT UP is forced to assemble and evaluate their approach to their demonstrations. During one of their demonstrations, where ACT UP storms in on an AIDS awareness conference, one member throws a balloon full of fake blood at a representative, others put him in handcuffs, and several more initiate a threatening chant for his resignation: a spectacle that the general public understandably sees as abominable. ACT UP Paris is divided by their ideologies: while their creed has always been to convey their message without violence, many members favour radical expression, believing that occasional explicit imagery is crucial in order to shock people out of their indifference and that letter-writing wastes precious time; others are worried that the appearance of violence alienates the public, dilutes their message, and sets their cause further back, while lobbying is more productive because it builds relationships with the people who have power.

What neither side can forget nor deny is that with six thousand newly reported cases of HIV/AIDS in France every year (double the rates in Germany and the United Kingdom), drug treatments with less toxicity than AZT or DDI, education in safer sex, and the introduction of needle exchange programs for drug users are urgently needed in order to curb the exponential acceleration of infection and fatality rates. Though tempted to snap their fingers (ACT UP’s encouraged manifestation of approval) or hiss (their sanctioned expression of disapproval) at each other as they weigh the virtues and flaws in either position, they ultimately realize that debate is missing the point. They do not have many other champions: they really only have each other, and if they do not stand united, there is very little they can hope to accomplish.

With so much to do, and without nearly enough time or bodies to do it, they have no time to find out what the most effective, organized approaches may be: they themselves cannot calibrate the drugs needed for them to stay alive, so they do whatever they can, whenever they can, to cry out for the world to care about their mortality and finally do something. Campillo captures and illustrates this righteous spirit of collective anger, frustration and rebellion consistently throughout the film, but notably in a stunning re-enactment of a raid on the head office for Melton Pharm, a company whose refusal to disclose the toxicity results of their new protease inhibitors (drugs designed to prevent the duplication of virally infected cells) enrages ACT UP. Campillo’s scenarios are inherently rousing in their portrayal of how the application of pressure forced the world to take AIDS seriously, but the contributions of every actor in his ensemble during ACT UP’s deliberations and demonstrations add another layer to this already powerful material.

After its diligent, thorough dedication to the tireless passion of the many faces in ACT UP’s united front, Campillo plucks two slightly more than peripheral members of his ensemble, narrowing his focus to transform 120 battements par minute into a more intimate, moving examination of how AIDS has affected their lives. Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a high-spirited, flamboyant young adult, was infected with the virus at the age of sixteen in his “first time,” after sleeping with his Maths professor. Nathan (Arnaud Valois), square-jawed, hunky, and quietly masculine, joins ACT UP even though his own HIV status is Negative. In Nathan’s early adulthood, he ignored his instincts to wrap it up, and followed through with an unprotected sexual encounter with a young man clearly covered in Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesions. Thankfully, this single exposure did not automatically infect him, but Nathan has now learned from this close call. He always plays safe so as not to contract the virus, but now he has a heart that is keen to support his Poz brothers and sisters. The two meet through ACT UP, and during the group’s invasion of a high school to distribute sexual health pamphlets, the two share what was meant only to be an impromptu, defiant kiss to chagrin a few hecklers, but it sends real sparks flying.

Following a night of intimacy, Sean, presumably threatened by his lover’s good looks and Negative status, tries to shut Nathan out, acting uninterested as a defensive masking of his inferiority feelings. Though he is naturally bashful and submissive (in queer media, more often than not physical stereotypes dictate personality traits and roles within relationships, so Valois and Campillo’s interpretation of this character’s softness and extreme sensitivity is refreshing), Nathan knows that he is wildly attracted to and cares deeply about Sean. Nathan buckles down in his pursuit of Sean, and the two become inseparable. Even once Sean’s illness progresses, and his health and independence rapidly deteriorate (in the tell-tale moment when one’s commitment for their partner is tested), Nathan devotes himself to taking care of Sean. The portrayal of Sean’s suffering is naturally very emotional and harrowing, but Campillo veers away from letting this define 120 battements par minute as a meditation on misery: balancing the darkness with hope, Campillo’s montage peppers the film with scenes of Sean’s joy, enthusiasm, and passion, culminating in a reassuring promise that even such a devastating illness does not have complete license to limit the fullness of a life, if one is unwilling to let it.

BPM is a heartbreaking, defiantly noble, and vitally alive tribute to the people who fought for a superior and gratifying quality of life, particularly mourning the many who died for and during this cause without the chance to witness the fruit of their labour. These are people who realized that AIDS was a war invisible to others, a godsend of a killing to those who hate and discriminate, and an opportunity to unite over personal and social tragedy with optimism and compassion.

While BPM is a love letter to the people who facilitated the advanced quality of life that both Poz and Neg persons now enjoy, it is not simply a tombstone to these warriors who have passed. There has been huge progress since the advent of ACT UP and the efforts from decades of activism in previous generations: surely the production of drugs that prevent the progression of the virus, to protect people with a high risk of contracting HIV (PrEP), and allow HIV+ people to go Undetectable are blessings that these pioneers would have marvelled at. But it isn’t enough, when there are still no cures or vaccines for the virus, and especially when a new generation of young adults, never having known anyone to die of AIDS-related complications, is increasingly beginning to feel so safe that there is not always automatic, nonnegotiable protection every time sex happens. In spite of the advanced treatment for HIV today, history could repeat itself, even if on a smaller scale, thanks to apathy and negligence. As Sean tells Nathan, “You can’t split responsibility. When you infect someone, or someone infects you, it is 100% your responsibility.” Hopefully it will not take such a turn. BPM is such a necessary, timely smoke signal and a battle cry to a new generation that needs to peel their eyes away from their smart phones and computer screens, consider what is happening around them, and act up.