Much of what could be boring in “120 Battements par Minute (120 Beats per Minute),” written, edited, and directed by Robin Campillo, is not. The film, which follows AIDS activists in the early ’90s, starts with a weekly meeting of Act Up-Paris, the first for the protagonist Nathan (Arnaud Valois). As members debate a recent action some view as too extreme, shots of the discussion are intercut with the demonstration itself, illustrating the points being made. A potentially dull political meeting is made exciting and illuminating by sharp dialogue and smart editing. Unfortunately, Campillo seems to have lost his touch as an editor by the end of the film, and what begins as a sharp, political portrait slowly morphs into a dragging personal drama.
These weekly meetings are how Nathan and the viewer are introduced to the colorful cast of activists—Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and Sophie (Adèle Haenel), some of the radical members of Act Up, and Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), the more conservative chairman of the group. Through these and other characters, Campillo is able to represent a wide variety of opinions and information on issues related to the AIDS epidemic.
Act Up-Paris’ main opponent in “120 Battements par Minute” is Melton Pharma—a drug company that first delays the release of a potentially important new medication for those living with AIDS, then only manufactures a limited amount. Campillo depicts other marches and actions, but the most memorable by far of all of them is a raid of Melton’s offices early on, as the activists try to steal the results of a clinical trial. This sequence includes many striking visuals, such as a balloon full of fake blood bursting against the company’s logo, and the stakes of the sequence are crystal clear.
As the film goes on, however, Campillo spends less and less time on political action and meetings. When he does, it can be hard to understand exactly what is being discussed, and as a big piece of each character is their political selves, they start to blend together somewhat. The film’s focus shifts to the developing romance between Nathan and Sean, as well as Sean’s battle with AIDS.
At first, Campillo balances the political and the personal well. Sean and Nathan’s conversations in between sex add color and urgency to the activism, and Sean’s declining health paints a brutal portrait of the effects of AIDS and indifference. However, many of their scenes together drag on too long, or fail to give the viewer any deeper understanding of these people and their struggle. “120 Battements par Minute” runs for well over two hours, and one can easily pinpoint scenes that could be cut or shortened—multiple lengthy sex scenes, protests that amount to nothing, and an unexplained conflict between Thibault and Sean, for a start.
Another culprit of the extended duration is the use of slow motion. From dance parties to political rallies, it pops up all over the film for little rhyme or reason. One of the worst offenders is a scene at a gay pride parade, chock full of slo–mo dancing and chanting. This scene adds so little to the film to begin with, and to lengthen it with slo-mo is a crime. It produces some interesting shots, but far from remarkable enough to merit the screen time.
At one point during the parade, Nathan falls over. For a little while, the viewer is left wondering: Has he been infected? The answer seems to be no, but there is little resolution for this and other puzzling questions. Most frustratingly, Campillo never divulges the results of any of the activism in the film. Several successes are implied, but never stated directly, and although the grand finale is a protest, it matters far more to the personal storyline than to the political.
With “120 Battements par Minute,” Campillo has the start of an engaging and dramatic tale of Act Up-Paris in the ’90s. Unfortunately, he forces the personal and political storyline to compete for screen time, rather than having them reinforce each other. With the Thibault and Sean storyline, he begins down a far more interesting path than the one he ends up taking—how ideological differences can strengthen or tear down friendships and romances. He has a deft hand in crafting engaging weekly meetings, and some of his dialogue—such as “This could be my last Gay Pride”—creates spine-tingling empathy. Instead, he gradually turns the film into a dull romance, unimproved by the dramatic political backdrop.
—Staff writer Ethan B. Reichsman can be reached at email@example.com.
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