120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) (Robin Campillo, 2017)
Sean, Thibault, Sophie, Jérémie, Max, Germain. They all belong to ACT UP. They are activists. They fight. In Robin Campillo’s 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute), they demand action to combat AIDS. Most of them are infected, and unless they find an effective treatment, they are going to die. Literally, their time is coming to an end. One of the film’s most striking achievements is its ability to make that feeling visible and central to the narrative: to convey, by means of filmic strategies, that the characters’ are simply running out of time.
Beyond the specific moments in which that idea is verbalised (“We don’t have the time. We’re dying”, “I don’t have time to waste”), there are reminders of it all the way through: specks of dust that become infected cells, while the music beat from a disco turns into a heartbeat; Sean’s (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) breath slowly fading away while we see the Seine River turned into a blood stream; his ashes spilled over a pharmaceutical gathering while the sound of a heartbeat suddenly stops. All these audacious scenes created by Campillo, combining both the visual and the aural, follow the same pattern: while a rhythmic sound makes us aware of the unavoidable passing of time, the image focuses on AIDS’ devastating consequences.
Apart from dialogues and specific scenes, the flow of the narrative also seems to convey the same idea. The film is divided into two halves, with Jérémie’s (Ariel Borenstein) death as the turning point. The first part is more focused on ACT UP as a group, on collective meetings and actions, and therefore it has a more dynamic rhythm. But as soon as attention turns from collective fight to Sean’s individual fight, the pattern changes. The second half is devoted to him. He slowly realises that his time is coming to an end, and this is reflected in the narrative strategies used: longer scenes, no soundtrack, and more stillness in terms of framing. The effect is both contradictory and powerful: the fact that time seems to slow down helps to emphasise the awareness of its passing. The whole of this second part, then, feels like some sort of elegy in which death –where time eventually leads- is always at the forefront.
Time, ultimately, is an essential element to any film. All films structure and manipulate time in a specific way. What makes 120 BPM (Beats per Minute) an interesting example is the way the film incorporates its discourse on time –that it is finite, especially for the characters- by means of visual, aural and narrative features.