120 Beats Per Minute review: unofficial early Cannes favourite

120 Beats honours the dead and the survivors but it feels like a lost opportunity

Photograph: Cannes Film Festival

Film Title: 120 Beats Per Minute

Director: Robin Campillo

Starring: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Antoine Reinartz

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 135 min

Sat, May 20, 2017, 12:27


Robin Campillo’s study of Act Up’s campaigns on behalf of Aids patients in 1990s Paris has unofficially been installed as early favourite for the Palme d’Or. It is a sincere film about a subject worth attacking. The director, who wrote Laurent Cantet’s Palme-winning The Class, makes efforts to blend the personal in with the political. There are numerous effective moments that communicate the anger and frustration that then abounded. But 120 Beats is a surprisingly conventional, borderline-vanilla piece of work that fails to properly flesh out its romance or explore the intricacies of its social agendas. When such a film scores its big moment of activism to Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy - a fine song, but familiar - it’s hard not to wish they’d tried just a little harder. At such points, the cosy British film Pride feels less distant than the film-makers can surely have intended.

We begin with a meeting of Act Up in a brightly lit classroom. Sophie (the gutsy Adèle Haenel) talks new members through their aims and processes. Not every member is HIV positive, but all must expect to be so identified. At such meetings, to allow uninterrupted speaking, finger clicks, rather than applause, are recommended. Information is power. Silence equals death. The film follows Act Up’s campaign against a drugs firm that refuses to release its test results to the Aids community. As the protests play out, the energetic Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who has Aids, begins a romance with the more cautious, HIV-negative Nathan (Arnaud Valois).

The film has its moments of transcendence. The camera allows the illuminated dust in a disco to become transformed into the aggressive mutations of an animated Aids virus. An aerial shot of the Seine dyed red on International Aids Day is intercut with a patient lying close to death. But for the most part the picture is shot with quiet efficiency.

The mystery of the thing is that, despite its sprawling running time, 120 Beats leaves too much unsaid. Like most protest movements, the Aids campaigns were troubled by divisions between purists, compromisers and the coolly pragmatic. Haemophiliacs and trans-gendered people had their own specific concerns. A continuing prudishness kept governments from offering specific advice on sexual health. All these issues are raised, but none is properly interrogated.

The central romance is also oddly sketchy. Campillo shoots the sex scenes between Sean and Nathan with great sensitivity. The actors are brave and charismatic. But we never really get to know either character. They are defined almost solely by their relationship to the disease that is killing Sean. Perhaps that is how things were.

120 Beats remains a powerful, heartfelt evocation of a terrible time. It honours the dead and the survivors. But it feels just a little like a lost opportunity. Greatness beckoned.