Part of Glasgow Film Festival 2018
120 BPM immediately stimulates our pulses with its explosive opening scene. Parading banners and blowing whistles, protesters storm a pharmaceutical seminar about AIDS medication, culminating in the speaker being pelted with fake blood and handcuffed to a piece of stage equipment. It’s a startling opener and one that epitomises the aims of activist group ACT UP: to demand attention and refuse to let the world forget the AIDS epidemic.
Once the audience is hooked in, we realise this clash is in fact a flashback, being narrated by one of ACT UP’s key players, Sophie, at a weekly meeting. The audience piggyback on newcomer Nathan as the fundamentals of the organisation and its meeting rules are explained and the group’s lecture theatre debates then serve as a centrepiece to which surrounding scenes in the film are tethered. We follow several characters involved in ACT UP including chairperson Thibault and his co-leader Eva, flamboyant and forceful Sean, and sixteen-year-old Marco along with supportive mother Hélène. Following the powerful – and funny – opening section, the film then moves through various other campaigns, parades and protests. However, the personalities of the characters and their relationships with one another are paid equal attention, often in incredibly intimate detail and with perfect touches of humour. Flashbacks are also cleverly employed on this level to offer an insight into painful memories and character motivations, including Sean’s alarmingly stark account of his contraction of AIDS.
The film uses atmospheric visuals at key points as well as characterisation to absorb its audience. Dust motes in club scenes are zoomed in on in hypnotic slow-motion as the actors’ frenetic dancing becomes background blur. Blood is a repeated motif throughout, too: squirted on windows, pelted in balloon bombs, filling up bathtubs, dripping from wounds. This culminates in one of the film’s most moving, exhilarating and horrific sequences as a terminally sick Sean hallucinates the Seine turning blood-red in a series of sweeping aerial shots.
The climax of the film, perhaps not unexpectedly, takes a dark and morbid shift, as protesting is left behind to focus on uncensored images of the real toll of AIDS on individuals. The final twenty minutes makes difficult viewing, but rightfully so. This is the point of 120 BPM. AIDS was (and arguably still is) being forgotten. It was seen as an illness of “fags, junkies and hookers” to be hushed and studied quietly in labs. The film achieves what ACT UP needed: hardcore, explicit truth.
120 BPM is a “based-on-truth” film that avoids any schmaltz, happy payoffs or cliché. The acting is consistently natural and the filming style so journalistic in places that we sense we are almost watching documentary. It blends the political with the personal and is ultimately harrowing yet crucial viewing.