For fans of an age to remember the 2nd Summer of Love from 1988 – 1989 then 120 bpm will bring back memories of driving round the M25 looking for a field of ravers and truck sized speakers booming out whilst opportunistic organisers collected money in bin bags and matte haired soap dodgers tried to convince clubbers that the junior disprins they were pushing was some new fangled dance drug that made you hit that bassline hell, dance til you smell. However 120 bpm here is a French subtitled AIDS drama following an advocacy group ACT UP carrying out ever more extreme campaigns in an effort to push research companies into getting their AIDS treatment drugs onto the market before those that have contracted the disease die.
The group consisting of gay men and women alike engage in activism that sees them flinging fake blood around a company’s pristine HQ and it’s this sort of campaigning that generally divides the public in their sympathies towards the cause. But these are desperate people frustrated by the slow progress being made in the advancement of AIDS treatment and many of them having contracted the disease do not have time on their side. One of the films highlights are the frequent arguments within the activist group, many with conflicting ideas about what campaign action, some of which are arguably shockingly tasteless, would have the best impact and its Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) who has less time than most and grows increasingly desperate.
Set in the early 1990’s 120 bpm captures the era well and the grim reality of their situation. What is ultimately downbeat is balanced by a certain joie de vivre as the men embrace the hedonism of a night club lifestyle grabbing whatever happiness they can and there is a remarkably effective sequence of the heady club atmosphere with the camera focussing on the smoke particles in the air dissolving into the microscopic shots of the virus swirling around.
Written by Robin Campillo (who also directs) and Philippe Mangeot both of whom were members of the ACT UP advocacy group there’s a nagging sense that, with the massive advance in the treatment of HIV, this is about 20 years too late. Some have criticised several of the characters who, having contracted the disease, still maintain a promiscuous lifestyle without practising safe sex and the pandemic seems inevitable and that their campaigning is more out of self interest as much as anything else. But the film is again balanced by a view that these pharmaceutical companies dragged their feet unnecessarily and that the politicians were wary of associating themselves with the cause.
Director Campilo has made a sympathetic film but at two and a half hours 120 bpm is overlong and some judicious editing would have strengthened the films impact.
Here’s the trailer……..