Making his first appearance in competition as a director (after having previously written Laurent Cantet's Palme d’Or-winning The Class), Robin Campillo already has a triumph on his hands with 120 Beats Per Minute, which centers on the efforts of the activist group ACT UP in Paris, patterned after the New York group of the same name formed in 1989. Enriched by Campillo's own experiences with AIDS activism in the 1990s, the film—which runs close to two-and-a-half hours, one of the longer titles in competition—has a canvas both intimate and expansive, brimming with specificity and bracing sincerity. It's the rare film that documents both a personal story and a larger movement with verve and grace, creating a compelling, often moving experience.
The opening alone, which sees four new members integrated into ACT UP’s weekly meetings, is impressive, laying out not just the group’s organization and rules (e.g. that all members must identify to the public as HIV positive) and various pressing issues (the outcome of a particular protest), but also individual characters and a whole host of (inevitably) competing agendas. Newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois) eventually emerges as a lead when he starts a relationship with Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), who is a “poz” (or HIV positive). But the film is an ensemble piece through and through, particularly in the scenes that don’t seem to do much more than place various individuals in a room and let them argue for minutes on end. The main point of contention is how to approach the pharmaceutical company withholding their initial test results of a new protease inhibitor. Members like Sophie (Adele Haenel) and ACT UP chairman Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) advocate a steady amount of pressure via meetings and the cooperation of other groups; while others like Sean, who are on a very literal countdown (the number of T4 cells they have left), feel that the group isn't doing enough.
What’s often striking is just how elongated these scenes are, not unlike those of Campillo's previous feature, Eastern Boys (2013), which featured two (impressive) twenty minute sequences. He has a keen feel for absorbing detail—discussions on whether a lecture on protease inhibitors was too optimistic, or about the implications of handcuffing a speaker during an AIDS conference the group disrupts. The comparison may be odd, but these scenes are riveting in the same way that the extended political debates of something like Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom (1995) are. It’s a precisely drawn portrait of how lines form and groups splinter, of negotiating agendas and tenuous compromise, lent even more urgency by the fact that most of the group are literally fighting for their lives, or for those of their loved ones.
The film’s first hour, which weaves together this riveting portrait of a movement and the nascent romance between Nathan and Sean, is uniformly fantastic. There's a keen balance of precise detail and emotional heft, aided by Campillo’s sensual, rhythmic touch. In the film’s most intoxicating moments, anything and everything becomes caught up in the beat of the dance floor, coruscating emotions and unresolved tensions sublimated into ecstatic abandon. (As in Eastern Boys, the club scenes, with their pulsating beats and strobing lights are difficult to resist.) Campillo’s frankness, too, is in full display during Nathan and Sean’s first sexual encounter—a tangle of limbs shot in gorgeous, shadowy blues; it's erotic and intimate, time and memory seeming to advance and recede with every tender gesture, each shifting play of light. Eventually, though, their relationship—particularly its progression as Sean’s health deteriorates—begins to take center stage, pushing the specifics of the ACT UP group to the margins (still present, but diminished). It’s a move from galvanizing energy to mournful quietude. (Although a late visual choice to turn the Seine red with the blood of those perished is as loud and bombastic a symbol as they come.) And while Campillo’s choices in these scenes are often beguiling, the trajectory does limit the film’s most compelling elements for a well-drawn, if more conventional tale of doomed love. By the end, sadness and death become subsumed once more into the euphoria of the dance floor. Strobing lights and pulsing images—the simple fact of existence, one beat at a time.