120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) (2018) (Review)

A two and a half hour long, thematically-heavy and emotionally-draining French drama about the AIDS crisis set in the 90s may not be everyone's trip of choice to the cinema, especially on a weekend as packed as this one -- but it's unlikely a film as arresting and important as Cannes-favourite 120 Beats Per Minute (BPM) will come along again for a while. Robin Campillo's drama failed to garner any major award season traction when it mattered, but the film's urgency and message means more than any accolade ever could.

BPM begins by following a group of ACT UP activists of the Paris chapter campaigning against the increasing and alarming AIDS epidemic. Frustrated with their governments' sluggish pace and censoring of the diseases' prevalence and impact, they launch a number of bold public protests. As we further explore the group, we begin to consider the more personal relationships and motivations of the members, namely that of the HIV-positive Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) and HIV-negative newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois).

BPM is not an easy watch; it really isn't designed to be an easy watch; and really shouldn't be an easy watch. We are dealing with such important and urgent themes, complete with profound displays of emotion intended to enrage, shock, move and educate us. It's a film deeply-rooted in something very real, something very now that demands fact and action -- but it is the emotion that fuels everything within BPM. In presenting a crystal clear, uncompromising examination of the crisis, we are greeted with a gut-punch of emotion, a passionate and resolute piece of filmmaking with a message and meaning.

It is because of Campillo and Philippe Mangeot's script that BPM is as striking as it is. Rather than simply fashioning the piece as a melodramatic documentary-drama, the pair sink their teeth into both the political and the personal in a beautiful way. They consider the group dynamic alongside the more intimate relationships of the various members, finding a sturdy balance and affording the characters space for development; the breadth of characters covering the LGBTQ+ are rich and layered, galvanising as a community while highlighting their differences and internal group conflict. You might argue that it has too much space - it is a touch on the long side and in need of a tightening in places - but to restrict the story would prevent paying it the respect it deserves. With a little comedy on hand to help ease the tone slightly, BPM is an incredibly well-rendered piece that avoids the pitfalls of many LGBT stories.

Campillo cultivates some wonderfully striking imagery within the film's frames, taking the film to a whole new level through its visuals. From the suitably flamboyant, colourful and celebratory Pride march to the hypnotic, pulsating club sequences, scored so effervescently by Arnaud Rebotini's electronic, throbbing score, Campillo achieves something rather special here. There's a sheen to BPM but it never distracts from the tragedy and brutality of the disease it focuses on.

Uniformly excellent across the board, the performances help ensure the well-drawn characters come to life on screen. It is Biscayart and Valois' Sean and Nathan that we invest most of our time with and their performance are so emotionally-varied and expertly-calibrated that despite the inevitability of their ending, we remain so attached and connected to their story. It's brimming with beautiful dialogue and vulnerability, with their conversations frequent high-points of the film. They sell the pain, the love and the defiance effortlessly -- the spectrum of emotion exhibited by the pair is extraordinary, sharing a gorgeous, believable chemistry intensifying their bond. Adèle Haenel is another stand-out performer, confident and emotional as Sophie.

BPM is about sensuality mired by a horrible inevitability; of togetherness and galvanising for a worthy cause; or fighting and utilising a voice and platform for change and reform. Possibly the most numbing cinematic experience in quite some time, BPM is not to be missed -- while it may be easier to switch on Curzon Home Cinema, I'd implore you to experience this on the big screen if possible; every emotion is heightened and intensified, gorgeously well-released and moving. The air of tragedy will leave you in a flood of tears but it is vital filmmaking. In its current form, is BPM for everyone? Certainly not, but I don't think I'd have it any different. It's an endurance test, emotionally and physically exhausting storytelling. But it's crucial, powerful filmmaking: please, please see it.


Summary: 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) is one of the most effective, numbing and powerful pieces of cinema in recent memory. Unbelievably important and urgent in its themes and stories, and rich in its character and visuals, BPM is superlative filmmaking -- a difficult but truly vital watch.