Robin Campillo on knockout Aids drama 120 BPM

Robin Campillo channels his own memories of being part of AIDS activism collective ACT UP in the early 90s for this deeply authentic story following the lives of the men involved in the movement

Feature by Philip Concannon | 13 Feb 2018
  • 120 BPM

When Robin Campillo collected the Grand Prix at Cannes last May for 120 BPM, it marked the end of a very long road for the director. In 1992, at the age of 30, Campillo joined the AIDS activism collective ACT UP-Paris, and he spent much of the subsequent decades thinking about the best way to bring his experiences to the screen. “I think I did this film to close a door on my youth and also a door in cinema, to do something else,” the very engaging and loquacious director tells The Skinny. “I have this feeling that I had finished a phase of my life. Maybe I won't have anything to do now – I hope I have some new ideas! But I had this feeling that I had to do this film, and for 25 years I was trying to.”

120 BPM completely immerses us in the world of ACT UP, placing us alongside these young activists and allowing us to experience the energy and intensity of their protests and the heated debates at their meetings. We see them storming the entrance at a pharmaceutical company and hurling bags of fake blood at the walls, or scattering ashes over the food at a lavish banquet. Campillo has described 120 BPM as a “river film,” ebbing and flowing as it moves between various characters and ideas, building an accumulative emotional force, and one of the film’s most potent images is an aerial shot of the Seine turned blood red. This is a film about a group of marginalised people who had to do whatever it took to shake the establishment and make their voices heard.

“ACT UP exists because we didn't exist for the first ten years of the epidemic,” Campillo says, and he cites Tod Browning’s Freaks as an influence as he discusses the group’s often extreme provocations. “If you are afraid of us because of the disease, we are going to frighten you; if you are not OK with gays, we are going to become the evil fags. That was something we accepted, to not be lovable.”

And yet, it’s easy for the audience to fall in love with this ensemble, particularly the two leads, Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). Campillo has given 120 BPM a loose narrative shape, but the relationship between these two young men is the emotional spine of the movie. Nathan is both the director’s surrogate and the point of connection for the audience; a newcomer to ACT UP who helps us navigate this world. He quickly falls for the passionate and charismatic Sean, who contracted HIV when he was a teenager and knows that his rapidly diminishing T-cell count means he doesn’t have much time left. Their relationship is tender and moving, but Campillo is keen to avoid talking about his film in the clichéd terms of a standard cinematic romance.

“People are talking about this as a beautiful love story and I think... hmm... I mean, love story?” he ponders. “I can accept the expression if we agree on the fact that the most important word is 'story,' because 'love'…I don't know what it is. We had a lot of sex in this group and in our lives, but you had couples that just existed for five or six months, because one of them was dying. It was very weird. Nathan and Sean, they are not together for ten years, they just have a few months, or one year tops. I wanted to talk about that, the fact that you have this quick intimacy, which is very strong.”

That intimacy is explored through sex scenes that are notable not only for their sensuality and frankness, but for the fact that they are integral to the film’s structure and to our understanding of these characters. “What I'm interested in when I do this kind of scene is what is beneath the scene,” Campillo says. “I don't like a film when you see a sex scene and it's just a sex scene; people don't talk, they just have sex and they do amazing things that you would never do in your life. For me that doesn't exist.

“All of the things that are a little bit swept under the carpet in other films are fiercely important for me” – Robin Campillo

“All of the things that are a little bit swept under the carpet in other films are fiercely important for me. When you have sex, it happens that it's a little bit too quick and just one of them is having an orgasm and the other is not, so you start talking about your life, and I love to film this. The fact that they have sex, and then they stop and start talking, and then they start to have sex again, and then you have the ghost of the one he had sex with years ago… I love to shoot this kind of intimate scene. This scene is like a continent by itself, it is such a big landscape.”

The ghost Campillo mentions is the memory of the man who infected Sean with AIDS – his first sexual experience – and the degradation of Sean’s condition throughout the course of the film is devastating to watch. Sean is such a vibrant presence when he first appears in 120 BPM, electrifying every scene, but we gradually see that vitality and spirit drain out of him as his disease takes hold, and Campillo put his faith in Biscayart’s revelatory performance to chart this character’s decline rather than showing it through external signifiers, such as lesions or extreme weight loss.

“I didn't want to see someone with a lot of stigmata, I just wanted to see someone playing less and less and less,” he says. “Nahuel is obviously a very baroque actor and we see that Sean is very theatrical and has a little bit of a theatrical distance from his disease, but when he gets really ill and goes to the hospital, I told the actor, ‘At this moment you stop playing. It's over.’ For me, that was the most melancholy thing in the film. He has no distance anymore with the disease, and this distance is important when you want to have a political struggle. It cannot be political anymore if you are caught in the intimacy of your disease.”

The intersection of the personal and the political is where 120 BPM is at its most riveting and exhilarating. Campillo’s film might be evoking a particular time and place, but as a film about what it means to fight for a cause when your life is on the line, and how messy and difficult political activism can be, it should also resonate in our current era of widespread protest and resistance. During our conversation, Campillo notes that his young cast had little to no knowledge of these events in his screenplay; did he think about younger viewers watching the film and how they might relate to its activism?

“No, I was really making the film in a very selfish way, but I knew of these movements,” he says. “I’ve said in a few interviews that these groups – like we have Les Indigènes de la République in France – I don't always agree with them on a lot of points, but they exist. You have to stay a little bit more open to what is happening now, because if these groups are very radical it's because there is a lot to fight against. I have this feeling that some people think they are very dodgy, but it was exactly the same thing with ACT UP, so when people are very welcoming to the film today we have to think and remember that we were not so welcome 25 years ago. 

120 BPM plays at Glasgow Film Festival: Mon 26 Feb, GFT, 7.45pm | Tue 27 Feb, GFT, 1pm

120 BPM is released 6 Apr by Curzon Artificial Eye

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