Add this deeply moving film about AIDS activism in France in the ’90s to the top of your must-see list
By Christopher Turner
A new film about the AIDS epidemic in France during the early 1990s is topping critics’ lists after winning acclaim and four awards, including the Grand Prix at the annual Cannes Film Festival.
Robin Campillo’s 120 Beats Per Minute (120 Battements Par Minute) is a touching and passionate story that takes viewers back to the struggles of frontline protest organization Act Up, an AIDS awareness group in early 1990s Paris. It’s the third film from the Moroccan-born French screenwriter turned director. Film lovers may remember Campillo for 2013’s Eastern Boys, a film about a young male Ukrainian prostitute who robs an older man, and for writing Laurent Cantet’s film The Class, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes back in 2008.
No doubt drawing inspiration from his own experience as a member of Act Up, Campillo brings unquestionable conviction to his screenplay (which was co-written with fellow Act Up alum Philippe Mangeot), which chronicles the lives of those affected by HIV and AIDS in the French capital and shows the lack of response of Francois Mitterand’s government at the time as well as the refusal of French drug companies to expedite potential breakthrough treatments.
In French with subtitles, the film stars Nahuel Pérez Biscayart as Sean and Arnaud Valois as Nathan, the film’s central couple. Sean is positive, while Nathan is not. Beyond exploring the activism of the day (the two meet at Nathan’s first advocacy group meeting), the audience watches their budding relationship blossom with unabashed sexual intimacy.
In reviewing the film, Vanity Fair called 120 Beats Per Minute “a vital new gay classic,” while The Telegraph deemed it “a vitally erotic, moving ode to activism.”
Gorgeous visuals come courtesy of veteran cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie, while the film’s furious forward momentum is often pushed by Arnaud Rebotini’s pounding house-music score. Listen for punchy use of the Bronski Beat classic “Smalltown Boy,” a landmark gay pop anthem that topped the charts during the early days of the AIDS struggle.
Campillo’s film is occasionally slowed down by the inevitable weight of the topic. Scenes of mourning and loss move the audience, but perhaps more importantly, they serve as a testament to early crusaders and as a poignant reminder of one of the LGBT community’s biggest battles.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER acted as guest editor for this issue of IN magazine. He is a Toronto-based writer, editor and lifelong fashionisto with a passion for pop culture and sneakers. Follow him on social media at @Turnstylin.