Friday 20 April 2018

The body politic: "120 Beats Per Minute"

The French writer-director Robin Campillo has long displayed an affinity with the marginalised. His 2004 directorial debut They Came Back (inspiration for TV hit The Returned), found the homesick undead shuffling back to their birthplaces to look forlornly in at life carrying on without them. There were the inner city schoolchildren in 2008's The Class, Campillo's Palme d'Or-winning collaboration with director Laurent Cantet; there were the Ukrainian hustlers gathering around the Gare du Nord in 2013's Eastern Boys. In each instance, we were introduced to characters operating very much on the periphery, circling worlds they could interact with, but never fully be part of. The characters in 120 Beats Per Minute are likewise outsiders, if we care to define them against the cultural mainstream, but right from the film's opening moments - which depict kids armed with whistles and klaxons and balloons filled with blood taking en masse to the stage of a conference to which they've not officially been invited - they seem wholly more inclined to storm the battlements.

These are the activists of Act Up Paris as they were in the early 1990s, and their rowdy, headstrong movement comes in stark contrast to the inertia of the French government with regard to staunching or even slowing the spread of HIV within the gay community. It is not the last time we will see Act Up taking action of one kind or another: over the course of these 140 minutes, they will burst, unannounced and mob-handed, into boardrooms, classrooms and function rooms alike, to be welcomed by some, scorned anew by others. For these latter, the group's noisemaking and (fake) blood-smearing would - as with the activities of Act Up's sister groups in New York, London and across the Western world - have been considered breaches of all the usual rules of engagement and etiquette; yet they succeeded in fostering an awareness in ways the authorities of the time clearly didn't. For those powers-that-be, AIDS was at best a problem, an issue, a concern. For the activists - many of whom were HIV+ themselves - it was a race against time, a matter of life and death.

Campillo was himself a member of the movement, and his film - something like Olivier Assayas's Something in the Air before it - seeks to throw an arm around inquisitive viewers' shoulders, and shepherd them inside a very precise and specific historical moment. After that initial stunt, we're introduced to Thibault (Antoine Reinhartz), one of Act Up's senior hands, as he briefs a set of fresh-faced new recruits in the finer points of the group's weekly meetings. These meeting scenes aren't so very far from the schoolroom scenes in The Class in their framing and emphases: the kids are a little older and wiser (and queerer, bien sûr), but yet again Campillo places us in the middle of an intersection (deaf gays over here, concerned mothers over there), a place where ideas can be proposed and debated. It's also a place where the people carrying those ideas can come together - in this case to support and organise, to further an agenda, and by way of relief or reward, in their nights off, to dance and/or hook up. 

The script, by Campillo and Philippe Mangeot, acknowledges that Act Up had their internal rifts and splits, like any party. Those pushing for greater access to preventative vaccines are looked down on and rather brusquely dismissed as naive by the "poz" lobby, for whom prevention comes too late, and the group has its militant elements, although Campillo is very careful to dramatise from where that militancy derives. Neither is it blind to the mistakes the group made: indeed, that very opening shows the activists pushing too hard too fast to make their point, and having to deal with the fallout. Yet, as Campillo sees it, they own up to these errors and learn from them, as any movement worth the blood, sweat and tears must, and crucially they realise they have far more that unites them than divides them - above all else, the potentially lethal indifference or contempt that the French establishment, whether President Mitterrand or pharmaceutical chiefs, displays towards them.

Their ideas and disputes are lent a sympathetic, occasionally indulgent ear: as the overlong Eastern Boys suggested, Campillo remains a sharper writer and director than he is an editor. He's picked up some interesting moves in the years since his last film: throughout 120 BPM, you catch him intersecting scenes in a way that serves both characters and theme, massaging into one sex sequence a hefty gobbet of exposition (turning on a shift of emphasis: "Am I the first poz you've slept with?" "You're the first one who's told me") which cuts to the risk that must have been involved in any kind of intimacy or interaction at this moment in time. I liked Arnaud Rebotini's sparse piano score, which threatens to break into either one of the era's trance anthems or a funeral march, depending on the space between notes or blood cells. And there is something very trancey about Campillo's out-of-nowhere close-ups of motes suspended above a dancefloor, and his inserts of inhibitor drugs entering the bloodstream, choices that serve notice of the intention to anatomise this movement from top to bottom and the inside out, to study big bangs and microscopic particles alike.

We need this to know what's going on inside the head and body of outspoken poz activist Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, his eyes growing bigger and more haunting as the rest of him shrinks) when he shows up at a meeting even after his AIDS enters the terminal stage; the danger is that, as he drifts in and out of what's being said, so might we. Those meetings, which Campillo returns to time and again as the foundation stones of this movement, are as important as the collectivism debate was in Ken Loach's Land and Freedom in helping to define not just the tension of individuals-versus-group, but also a sense of what grounded a movement chiefly composed of varyingly responsible youth. Yet they have a similar effect of stopping the movie stock still for three, four, five minutes at a time. I can understand why Campillo might want to get more of his experiences and research up on screen, and why he couldn't bring himself to cut away from his virtuosic ensemble in full flow; I've no idea why we end up getting a lesson in how to decant fake blood a full hour after we've seen it being deployed, one of a handful of scenes here that would appear eminently deletable.

There is, for all this, something genuinely stirring and educative about being left in a room with people whose sometimes frequent - and frequently vocal - differences of opinion didn't ultimately prevent them from making a difference. (In the age of Twitter, this may be the film's most valuable lesson of all.) Campillo refocuses very effectively and movingly in the final half-hour's progression from the political to the personal and back again, and one could argue the whole film might be boiled down to a single line spoken late on at a hospital bedside: "We don't like one another, but we're still friends." The temptation with a big-canvas movie like this, arriving at this particular moment, would be simply to prescribe it to leftists of all stripes and persuasions as a vivid nostalgia trip; yet at a time when there are Nazis in the White House, and the leaders of both main British political parties appear hellbent on nudging the country over a cliff, 120 BPM's vision of oppositional unity and purpose seems way too urgent and vital merely to be approached as nostalgia.

120 Beats Per Minute is now playing in selected cinemas, and is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player. 

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