In the days of TRUVADA, PrEP and vastly better education on transmission, the AIDS epidemic feels to many like a forgotten spectre – one which has faded with time, the haunt slipping away with every newly discovered treatment or decreasingly anxious pride event. In contrast, Robin Campillo’s 120 Battements Par Minute feels like a cry of rebuke towards this forgetfulness, recalling the disease with deeply personal, vivid detail.
In much the same strain as Larry Kramer’s impassioned play The Normal Heart, or the stellar 2015 documentary How to Survive a Plague, 120 BPM follows the epidemic from the perspective of Paris ACT UP – the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, the premiere AIDS activist group, founded by Kramer in New York in 1983 – as it progresses into the early nineties.
Campillo interweaves dual narratives to great affect: a wider, fly-on-the-wall, realist depiction of ACT UP’s activism; and the more sensitive, intimate relationship of two activists, Sean and Nathan – gorgeously portrayed by Nahuel Biscayart and Arnaud Valois – applying a more personal touch amidst the wider chaos. It is here where humanity really comes to show: their sexuality, their love, and their yearn for one another not to die.
At the climax of the film, these coalesce to great effect to underline Campillo’s wider critique, and accusation, of institutional neglect. Sean passes, leaving us drained not only by his death, but also by the legislative and social injustices which have led to it. Deeply solemn and fiercely critical, 120 BPM compels us not only to remember, but also to never forgive.