Reviews, Screen

Cannes Film Festival review: 120 battements par minute (120 Beats Per Minute)

French writer-director-editor Robin Campillo‘s new film 120 battements par minute (120 Beats Per Minute) is a touching and passionate story about the forces behind Parisian AIDS-advocacy in the 1990s. It follows various members of the AIDS-advocacy group Act Up Paris and chronicles the lives of those affected by AIDS and HIV in the French capital.

It’s stylistically beautiful, has an extraordinary cast and a soundtrack that heightens its emotion, but I couldn’t help but be slightly disappointed by it. Campillo (Entre le murs) seems to find difficulty choosing a tone for the film. While it starts out mirroring other recent LGBT-themed films such as 2014’s Pride, it becomes darker as it progresses. It can’t seem  to decide on how to approach the troubling subject matter, so the plot spirals, just as the characters do.

The viewer is immediately introduced to a variety of men, women and teenagers who are bound together by the realities of the terrible virus, whether they have it personally or not. Some have contracted it through sex, others through drugs, and one young boy and his mother attend the Act Up meetings after he contracted HIV from doctor prescribed transfusions.

Campillo has written a lovely ensemble of characters who all promise to share their own personal history with AIDS and HIV, but we’re not given the chance to know them in any real depth. 120 BPM takes a while to hone in on a protagonist, focusing firstly on the larger collective within Act Up, before zeroing in on the romance that blossoms between Sean and Nathan.

As with American Honey, this lack of a clear narrative voice denies the audience access to its range of characters. 120 BPM‘s lengthy story and promising ensemble of characters may better lend themselves to a mini-series than a feature film; discrete episodes could focus on one specific character’s story, much as is done in Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. For instance, the two actors who bring Sean and Nathan to life (Nahuel Perez Biscayart and Arnaud Valois), breathe such energy into a relationship in which their dedication to each other is galvanised by standing up to a world stacked against them, that you want more to know more of them.

But Campillo’s dedication to a story that deserves to be told should be applauded. Romantic narratives featuring LGBT characters are consistently swept under the rug which means that any love story that isn’t cisgender or heteronormative is always seen as  ‘other’ .

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