Paris in the ’90s. No Hemingway here, no champagne infused gaiety or Gigi dancing in the streets. Bono is not singing from the Eiffel Tower.

This is Paris smack in the middle of the 1990s, when AIDS had a vast human face and its tentacles raced through the bodies of gay men, young and old.

In “120 BPM (Beats Per Minute),” director Robin Campillo and screenwriter Philippe Mangeot bring to the screen what initially appears to be an angry documentary about the disease that was swirling around the world like a black typhoon.

But there is more here. This is about the resistance group, ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) growing in America and blossoming in France and other parts of Europe.

Its goal was to force the cautious “Big Harm” to hasten the study and release of Protease inhibitors, a blend of retroviral drugs that today are widely used to treat HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C.

Among the ailing in Europe, especially in France where government officials who had little sympathy for the problems of the gay community and seemed to be slumbering through history, a social and moral fever among the young began to rise.


This brought to life the frustrations and anger of the gay community, who were watching friends, lovers and even family members become dying zombies. We see them all here in gay cabarets, on buses, walking down streets, holding one another, men kissing men while other people look away.

Campillo and Mangeo start from frame one to give a human face to the epidemic, by introducing us to the young activists who begin to take their battle from the streets to the board rooms, laboratories and halls of the drug companies.

We meet their leaders, Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) and his team organizer Sophie (Adele Haenel) who coral the anger of their members and force them to focus their energies.

We meet them all in university lecture halls turned into organized “war rooms,” where “battle” plans are discussed, dismissed and rebuilt. It reminds us of the courageous French resistance to World War II German occupation, but with less hope.

To the dismay of the cooler heads in the group, the activists explode into a rogue army of commandos, who split up and illegally invade conferences and labs, offices of the executives, even the cafeterias — bombarding workers with exploding balloons of fake blood, spraying walls and elevators with paint.

They took to disrupting school classrooms, spraying lockers and distributing pornographic leaflets, which only further enraged powerful people in government. Still, given scant hope, the volunteers persisted.


There are at the heart of all of this, moments of tenderness among the dying and those who will soon join them. Campillo takes his camera into the gay dance halls full of the lost, who try to fill their free moments with wild dancing in colorfully lit cellar clubs, then take time to swallow a handful of colored pills.

Even in the very graphic sex scenes, one of the lovers pauses to swallow pills. Campillo is unsparingly clear that death is everywhere here, even in the laughter of lovers. Even in the wild music, death has vivid, discernible features.

There is Sean (a wiry, kinetic Nahuel Perez Biscayart) the youngest and most undisciplined, who leads the packs into battle. He is Puck with blood to throw.

There is Nathan (Arnaud Valois) who at first hangs back, but is drawn in by his romantic attraction to Sean, knowing how fragile they are, how short the passage of time. They seem to hold on to hope. The end is brutal and hard to watch.

All the actors are new to me, but all are professional, all vivid and heartbreakingly real.

No, there is no Hemingway here, no Gigi dancing in the streets. Campillo makes it clear: Death dances here.

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