Robin Campillo’s 120 BPM establishes a three-part ritual: the meeting, the protest, the nightclub. We’re debating strategy in the weekly assembly of HIV-AIDS action group, ACT UP Paris. Was throwing blood-red paint and handcuffing a speaker at a medical conference too violent? Is dialogue with opponents possible or desirable? Should ACT UP advocate prison for Pharma execs? The intermittent cacophony of clicking fingers suggests no consensus. There is discord over tactics, but unity in the goal: forcing the French government and medical companies to accelerate research into producing a viable cure. Then there’s direct action: teach-ins, occupations, chanting, arrests. And from the streets to the club. A piano riff, which earlier signalled melancholy, is paired with a percussive rhythm. It now signals something else. The nightclub reminds us of the eminently political and queer roots of dance music: the darkness, strobed with light, casts a unique shade of anonymity and transformation.
Within this tripartite structure – organise-protest-dance – we spend time with the ACT UP cadre. They are movement leaders, but not quite the film’s protagonists; the narrative arc will outstretch many of their lives. Those who are ‘seropositif’ slowly atrophy, faint during meetings, and eventually die. In an intimate love scene between the ailing Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) and Nathan (Arnaud Valois), who has managed to stay free from infection, Sean speaks about his mother, whose photograph looks down on the couple. It isn’t a post or pre-coital discussion; it’s mid-coital, and they carry on fucking afterwards. Of the whole ensemble of ACT UP activists, Sean’s is the only house we’re invited into, but he remains mysterious. In a cigarette break during a fiery discussion, the couple quiz each other on their comrades’ occupations. ‘What’s your job?’, Nathan asks awkwardly. ‘I’m poz, that’s it’. We know these people purely in their roles as protestors, ravers and mourners. In a dramatic action at the end, they dance and scatter a comrade’s ashes at a medical insurance dinner, playing all of these parts at once. The ashes – no more than dust swirling in the wind – call back to an earlier dancefloor when the camera focuses on particles that rise from the sweating bodies. These characters leave a physical trace of themselves. The camera zooms in on these specks, and, drifting through the pounding blackness, they finds a virus, malignant and squirming.
Another member is a history student. In a smart montage, we hear him recite a paper on the 1848 European revolts over real documentary footage of ACT UP’s protests, placing the social movement in a radical tradition. In a spectacular action, fantasised by Sean on his hospital bed, the river Seine is dyed a deep red: blood and death, but also revolution. The film is revolutionary when it finds the ecstatic moment of activism: breaking the law, finding solidarity and winning justice. 120 BPM is a great antidote to the saccharine Pride (2014) or the reactionary Dallas Buyers Club (2013). But there is also something melancholic about the film’s politics. ACT UP’s loquacious Secretary visits Sean in hospital to ask why Sean’s never liked him. Sean is too sick to answer properly, but the audience knows anyway. There are political divisions between the two. Sean is committed to the ‘prisoners, prostitutes and drug addicts’. The Secretary believes that they need to make their campaign accessible in order to gain popular support. It’s a substantial disagreement. There’s conflict over strategy too: Sean wants militant direct action, while the Secretary hasn’t given up on dialogue. Campillo provides a double mourning at the film’s close: for those who died, and for Sean’s politics – contentious, uncompromising, focused on the most marginalized – which also seem terminal. The Secretary’s agenda, on the other hand, will be comfortably assimilated into the sleek portfolios of NGOs, inclusive business and government.