Some disasters come from within. Robin Campillo's 120 Beats Per Minute might not feature CGI monsters, cities collapsing, seas rising, asteroids impacting, machines destroying or superheroes saving. But make no mistake, the story at the heart of the film deals with a disaster on a huge scale.
120 Beats Per Minute focuses on the lives and in some cases deaths of AIDS activists in Paris in the early 1990s. It's boisterous, loud - in the arguments, the music played and the sex performed - and a million miles from the studied sobriety of American AIDS-related films like Philadelphia (1993) and Dallas Buyers Club (2013). Written with AIDS educator and activist Philippe Mangeot, it tells the French side of the story of ACT UP, the international organisation created to help those diagnosed as HIV Positive, their friends, families and those interested in offering their support. Though outwardly accepting of all - whether they are gay or straight, contracted the virus through sexual activity or medical procedure - it soon becomes clear that the organisation is riven with individual factions. Policy changes feel like they could prompt outright war and with so much at stake passions run incredibly high.
Passion is something Campillo's film has in abundance. Whereas other AIDS-related dramas become sexless as they delve deeper into their subjects' lives, 120 Beats thrives on the emotional, physical, and sexual sparks that fly between people. Campillo could have just produced a document of these activist's political activities. But that would only tell the 'official' story. The film's centrepiece, by contrast, rather than one of the dramatic actions to demonstrate the characters' anger with pharmaceutical companies or politicians, is a lengthy sex scene between two main characters, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and Nathan (Arnaud Valois), which encompasses their entire sex lives.
120 Beats is Campillo's third film as director. But his link to cinema stretches back further. He has been the co-writer with and editor of Laurent Cantet's films, including the Palme d'Or-winning The Class (2008). There are elements of their work in 120 Beats, particularly the approach to shooting. It is both controlled and freewheeling, which works particularly well in the discussion scenes, whose sense of urgency recall the riveting opening scenes of Antonioni's Zabriske Point (1970 - albeit a little more coherently in terms of what is being said).
Campillo's first feature was They Came Back (2004) - later reimagined by him as the TV series The Returned. It told the story of a small French town whose recently deceased have come back to life. Shot in a stark, unfussy style, it is a moving account of the nature of grieving - of how it is less an outpouring of our desire to have those loved ones back as it is the process that allows us to eventually move on. That's something many of the people have done and the once-dead's arrival on the doorsteps of many people's homes proves to be awkward at best. As if this environment wasn't charged enough, Campillo introduced another element that proved to be depressingly prescient. The dead are soon regarded by the many of the living as unnatural - if not illegal - aliens. As their body temperatures are a little lower than the actual living, infra-red CCTV cameras are installed above the town. Thus, through those lenses, this group of people lose all personality, individuality and identity, only to become figures of a different colour.
Campillo's next film as director, Eastern Boys (2013), found a middle-aged businessman (Olivier Rabourdin) seeking sex with a younger man, only to be found out by a Ukrainian street gang and blackmailed. Once again, what could have been a fraught emotional tale is politicised through the contrast of a French national who has done as he has pleased for much of his live and the precarious situation the Ukrainian characters live in. Directorially, Campillo employs a similar approach to 120 Beats, shifting between beautifully composed shots and more frenetic movements that heighten the tension of a scene.
If we are looking in as spectators in They Came Back and Eastern Boys, 120 Beats locates us at the heart of the action. There isn't a moment in the film where it feels like a period drama. It is alive in the moment, thrilling to watch and offers a sense of the urgency - of lives lived on the cusp - as it unfolds.
Ian Haydn Smith is a British writer and editor. Formerly the editor of the International Film Guide, he is the co-author of New British Cinema and author of the forthcoming The Story of Photography. He has attended New Horizons since 2008.