Film: “120 Beats Per Minute”; Language: French; Cast: Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adele Haenel; Director: Robin Campillo; Rating: *****(5 stars)
Very rarely do the characters from a film jump out of the screen to become a part of the audiences’ collective consciousness as effectively as they do in this exceptional French film.
Set during the initial years of the AIDS outbreak in Paris, it seemed so real, so tangible and so immediate, I thought the people I was seeing on the screen were playing themselves. Fiercely dedicated AIDS activists, not afraid to lose their political identity, because, hell, when you are infected with the HIV virus, what have you got to lose?
For a good 20 minutes of this lengthy and profoundly disturbing film, I thought I was watching a documentary on the ‘Act Up’ movement which originated in the US as a form of protest against government apathy towards AIDS victims. Its strengthening power in France is recorded by the director Robin Campillo with scrupulous authenticity and unquestionable intensity.
The mass protests are filmed in languorous crowds clamouring for attention in a world that has no place for the sick and dying.
The passionate meetings of the activists had me looking on with helpless curiosity and some admiration for their gumption, when the narrative swerved into a love story between two of the activists — Sean and Nathan played by a young Argentinian actor Nahuel Perez Biscayart and a French actor Arnaud Valois.
Sean is dying of AIDS. Nathan is still free from the clutches of the HIV because as he tells Sean during one of their several intense conversations, he has been extremely safe about sex.
All caution is thrown to the winds as Nathan and Sean embark on a doomed romance which starts with lust and lots of nostalgic look-back on dangerous liaisons, and grows into a kind of passionate love story which I haven’t seen in a gay film before.
“120 Beats Per Minute” is a rare example of a film that blends the pain of dying with the passion of romance. Lust and sex are seen to cling with delirious desperation to pain and fear of death. The film is unabashed about the libido even in the hospital when Sean is dying. This is a fearless and shameless film about characters who have nothing to lose except life and dignity.
This is not the postcard-pretty world of same-sex passion from Luca Guardagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name”. Death stalks the lovers everywhere. It is a constant presence in every frame like a creditor who won’t write off your debt.
The film shows the threshold of pain to coalesce with spasms of physical desire in what can be termed as a life-giving dance of death. Indeed, there is a lot of dancing on-screen. Dying souls who know nothing about their tomorrows, on the dance floor relishing the beat of the moment.
It is the fierceness of the political commitment of the ‘Act Up’ activists that the director wants us to look at first. But it was the Nathan-Sean love story that I carried away from the film. The last 20-25 minutes when Nathan takes care of the dying Sean and helps his beloved to die are so affecting, it brings us as close to death as life in cinema will ever take us.
Rough, raw, relentlessly honest, “120 Beats Per Minute” is an elegiac embrace of life and a violent repudiation of death. It tells us that those who indulge in socially unacceptable relationships must not be punished by a state machinery that favours only the status quo. That is okay to love and desire even when you know when you are dying.