According to statistics from UNAIDS, by 2016 there were around 37 million people in the world who are HIV positive. That number, while cause for concern, has plateaued over the last decade or so; what has increased dramatically is the proportion of those people who are now receiving treatment, with the numbers of those receiving some form of therapy almost half of all those diagnosed. This is a significant shift from just a decade ago, when of the 30 million people who were HIV positive only 2 million were receiving treatment; at the start of the century, that figure was less than 1 million. How times have changed, slowly but gradually for the better.
It’s difficult for anyone under the age of 30 to remember what the peak of the HIV / AIDS ‘epidemic’ was like – scaremongering about an illness about which little at the time was known, and adverts in the media designed to raise awareness through fear – which is just one of the many reasons why 120 BPM (BEATS PER MINUTE) is so valuable. When you think of AIDS dramas, you might think of PHILADELPHIA or DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, dramatically powerful in their own ways, but 120 BPM might be the first film to successfully capture the larger experience of HIV and AIDS sufferers while not losing sight of their struggle on a personal level.
The film is set in the French branch of the American-founded organisation ACT UP and we’re introduced to the lead characters through their weekly campaign meetings, strong political discourses where agreement is shown with clicking fingers and dissent by hissing. At the first meeting we see, chaired by group leader Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) they’re already disagreeing on the approach, with Sophie (Adèle Hanael) favouring a more passive, talkative method while Sean (Nahuel Pe´rez Biscayart) has started handcuffing speakers to podiums. Newcomers such as Nathan (Arnaud Valois) try to work out which approach to side with in their battle with the big pharmaceutical companies. The group’s members feel as if they are living on borrowed time, with their main focus to get the pharmas to take them seriously and to release helpful information the group thinks they are sitting on.
What’s immediately apparent is how much these young activists, whilst trying to manage their symptoms, also had to become polymaths on their own condition. Effective discourse with the industry was only possible if they had a similar level of expertise, so many of them had to acquire deep levels of pharmaceutical and medical knowledge in a short space of time. But they also had to become effective political activists, and Campillo shows the group’s journey from invading the pharma companies’ offices and throwing fake blood at the wall, to inviting them to group meetings in an effort to get some desperately needed traction on their support.
There’s a risk that this could all be terribly dry and preachy, but far from it. The title, 120 BPM, refers to the average heart rate of sufferers, elevated as one of the many symptoms of their condition, but it’s also a description of the film’s elevated approach to throwing light on the plight of HIV sufferers at the time. Despite clocking in at well over two hours, the script (by Campillo and Phillippe Mangeot) shows its leads attempting to live life to the full, even while they continue the struggle to be allowed that right; their urgency reflected in their personal lives as well as their activism.
Central to this is the relationship between Nathan and Sean; not all of the characters get to have their backstories sketched in but as Nathan and Sean grow closer, and share a pivotal and tender sex scene, 120 BPM becomes a touching, affecting portrayal of the characters’ lives as well as a militant one. But it’s also not afraid to show how society viewed these people, with suspicion and dread, and that just serves to add to their plight and to your sympathies. Come well-armed for 120 BPM, you’ll need a hankie or two for the end and then, when you’ve been inspired by the film, some placards to join the protest afterwards.
120 BPM screens at Cambridge Film Festival at 19:30 on Monday 23rd October at the Arts Picturehouse, and at 10.15 on Wednesday 25th October at the Arts Picturehouse, click here to buy tickets.