Robin Campillo had a breakout moment at this year’s Cannes Film Festival with 120 Beats Per Minute, which has been widely tipped as the film to beat for the Palme d’Or. It’s only Campillo’s third film as a director, following 2004’s They Came Back and 2013’s Eastern Boys, but as a writer he’s already penned one Palme d’Or winner: Laurent Cantet’s 2008 docudrama The Class, which relied heavily on the real-life dynamic between a teacher and his racially diverse students. Inspired by Campillo’s true-life experience as a member of AIDS activist group ACT UP Paris in the 1990s, 120 Beats Per Minute feels like a close cousin to The Class, as it similarly spends much of its runtime on lengthy debates between a close-knit community’s various members.
As with The Class, certain characters come to play a larger role in this film than the rest, in particular ACT UP’s newest recruit, Nathan (Arnaud Valois), and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), the HIV-positive, far-left-leaning firebrand with whom he falls in love. The relationship between these two provides not only 120 Beats Per Minute with its emotional center, but also activates its politics: Nathan is less radical than Sean, and his conflicted attitude toward a more aggressive approach to protest speaks to the larger group’s guilt over their own political identity, especially as members start to die.
Campillo uses a simple but effective visual metaphor to thread together the episodic narrative of his two-and-a-half-hour epic, returning regularly to scenes of the activists—who are all required to identify as “HIV-positive,” even if they actually aren’t—losing themselves to the pulsing music of a strobe-light-lit dance floor. This act is its own form of protest, not only in the more literal sense that the film’s title implies, but also because it reclaims the freedom and agency of a sexuality compromised by the threat of AIDS.
What’s slightly disappointing about Campillo’s film is how little we get to understand these characters as anything but activists. While the filmmaker is intent on showing ACT UP’s activities as a group, away from their protests, their personal lives are only really defined by their relationships to one another. This keeps 120 Beats Per Minute from the level of narrative and character depth achieved by André Techiné’s The Witnesses—a superb drama about the onset of AIDS in Paris in the 1980s—or David France’s sweeping documentary portrait of ACT UP New York, How to Survive a Plague. But it does suggest that Campillo’s writing skills are perhaps best served by his own directorial vision: 120 Beats Per Minute offers not only compelling social-realist ideas on its surface, but finds visually evocative ways to express them.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 17—28.