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“120 BPM” shows the French ACT UP movement as sex, pain, death, dancing

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120 Battement Par Minute (Beats Per Minute) is director Robin Campillo’s second major film. The two and a half hour movie discusses many aspects of the French AIDS epidemic in the 1990s through a mostly historical fiction lens with some real documentary found footage. Campillo seems to define the afflicted gay community through an on-screen combination of sex, death, dancing and group solidarity. Even if there is disagreement among the more extreme members of ACT UP, the AIDS awareness group the film centers on, the entire community still feels connected.

The movie focuses on the story of Nathan (Arnaud Valois) beginning to become an active and influential member in ACT UP, as well as his life with a new boyfriend, Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart). This is a weak driving plot as the movie is more about different moments in the ACT UP movement and the lives of its members. The group discuss different forms of protest like raiding a lab for medication results while throwing fake blood across the office space or lying down in the streets pretending to be dead AIDS victims. Nathan takes a key role in organizing these protests for the specific cause of pushing new medication for those infected with HIV. He balances this role with dating a member of ACT UP, Sean, who suffers from HIV.

The weak driving plot significantly detracts from the film as a whole. While weak driving plot and writing can work for some films and, at some points, in “120 BPM,” overall it does not allow viewers to truly identify or connect with Nathan. It is hard to realize that Nathan and Sean are key characters until halfway through the film and at that point, key character building has been lost. The lack of an important plot line can be entertaining and interesting for some audience members, yet “120 BPM” does not make it work that well.

Despite its weak plot, though, the dialogue written for the characters and the acting involved is rather unique. It has incredibly realistic dialogue and acting as characters talk over each other naturally in conversation, instead of waiting for an actor to finish their lines before saying their own, which can come across as scripted and boring. The actors are able to fully immerse themselves in their roles and give a very emotional portrayal of AIDS victims and their friends and family. Campillo put effort into creating realistic relationships between characters and pushes that through dialogue and acting. Doing this helps create a true message behind the film as if it is like a documentary on the ACT UP movement in the ‘90s.

Footage from real ACT UP protests and demonstrations are edited in at some points to provide an illusion of reality for the scripted portions. While this does help the audience see the reality of AIDS and the efforts that ACT UP organized, it does not necessarily add to the plot or add to the quality of filmmaking.

Overall, “120 BPM” is a strong representation of what life was like for the ACT UP movement and those affected by HIV in the gay community. It’s not a particularly amazing movie as it lacks a significant plot and there are few noteworthy aspects of the movie. It hits every point it needs to make, but does nothing beyond that. The film can elicit a deep emotional response due to its subject matter and the scenes the movie portrays, but it does not do this in a way that makes this movie stand out above other movies on this topic.

Grade: B


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