120 Beats Per Minute

REVIEW BY SIOMHA MCQUINN

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At its simplest, 120 Beats Per Minute foregrounds the members of a Paris-based activist group, ACT UP, in their determination to raise awareness about AIDS prevention during the epidemic in the early 1990s. Perhaps, at its most complex, it is a study of the human body in all of its glory and limitations. We witness its extremities of pleasure and suffering, intimacy and alienation and its use as a means of self-expression through dance and protest.

The filmmakers of 120 Beats Per Minute  have received recognition for their ambitious film at both the 70th Cannes Film Festival and at this year’s prestigious César awards. Upon watching it, it is not difficult to see why. This weighty subject is explored with the support of exceptional acting and striking visuals. It hooks the audience with the action and strength of a collective and holds their attention by focusing on the heartache and vulnerability of the individual. The film, which runs at 143 minutes, maintains a palpable intensity and urgency, throughout, which is guaranteed to immerse the spectator.

An ACT UP meeting, the first of many that takes place, opens the film, informally introducing members of the ensemble cast as they engage in a post-mortem of a demonstration gone awry. A disparity between the aims and approaches of different members in the group is instantly recognisable setting up for inevitable tension later on.  At first, identification with any single character is denied so the audience is situated as a new member of the group, gradually becoming versed in the various dynamics and personalities at play. The death of a former member is mentioned and immediately harnessed as a way of putting pressure on unresponsive politicians. This initial, seemly impersonal, approach to death and mourning is contrasted as the film progresses and the physical condition of some of the most fiery and passionate characters begin to deteriorate. Death is first approached politically but becomes heart wrenchingly personal.

The film is made up of ongoing fights: the fight of the body against the illness, the debates which turn into arguments between the ACT UP activists and the fight between the protesters and a society which allows AIDS-positive individuals to continue to suffer and die without proper care. However it also navigates the growing relationship between new ACT UP member, AIDS-negative, Nathan and long-time member, AIDS-positive Sean. Amongst all of the conflict found in the film, relationships are given the opportunity to grow and flourish.

Although challenging to watch at times, 120 Beats Per Minute is a powerful and effective film. It is about grabbing hold of life and valuing it in a way that makes the injustices served to the members of ACT UP all the more infuriating. It is at once a love story between Nathan and Sean and one between life itself and those who choose to live it.