120 BPM Review: A Beautifully Shot Look into The Neverending Courage of Queer Existence


Queer cinema, whether you choose to describe it as a genre of its own or just an overall title for those movies focusing on same gender affectionate or trans-identifying people, has been on the rise since the start of the 21st century. Although it is questionable how much of a rise a rise that makes you go from “very little” to “slightly less little” can be, and it is undeniable that the movie industry is still so behind on the experience of queer culture and life, just as any other minorities; the addition of films from A Single Man to The Handmaiden, The Pariah to Carol, Keep The Lights On to Milk or Tangerine has been a clear leap of both faith and success for the cultural spectrum. 2016’s Moonlight can be considered as the single best example of this exposure, as the only movie to ever win best picture with a queer relationship as its focus.

So it was a logical framework that made me assume that I would see many more queer movies in the 2017 rendition of Film Ekimi, a week-long film festival in Istanbul that lets its viewers watch many movies that otherwise wouldn’t come to theatres in a widespread release or even if they did come, that would be months later. Going bling without any knowledge of what most of these screenings were, I was only aware that Call Me by Your Name, a movie that was very much considered considered controversial in some social media circles for the ages of its main roles and revolutionary by others because of its portrayal of first love, would be coming to the festival.

After an hour long anxiety ridden trial of buying tickets, I had only the tickets to witness that, but also three other movies focusing on queer existence, each from a very different perspective. There was A Fantastic Woman, which was a magnificent story of magical realism and gender identity. There was Thelma, a horror tale on female sexuality and religion’s role in its repression. And of course, there was Call Me by Your Name, a scenery filled story of love and heartbreak. All three of them were beautiful movies, or dare I say great, for various reasons ranging from their scenarios to cinematographies; but none had the effect on me that another movie, named 120 BPM, had. A reaction of tears and a void left inside my body.

And before going on into my review of the movie, I’d like to say something. I am not going to claim that my thoughts on this movie, nor my review of it, are objective, because they aren’t. The timeframe of it, as well as the plot, talks about a section of queer history that is filled with extreme pain and sorrow, as well as courage and power. And this is not to imply that it is a film that can only be really liked by LGBT people, but the historical and cultural significance it has for the community is an undeniable fact when it comes to the contextualization of the subject. Directed by Robin Campillo and starring Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois and Adèle Haenel in its main roles, its story — co-written by Campillo and Philippe Mangeot, who were both activists of ACT UP once — follows the group’s inner and outer struggles while they try to create an impactful form of resistance against the pharmacy companies and the government, as well as showcasing a romantic relationship between two of its main roles. It is a long movie, 140 minutes filled with club scenes and transitions of dust particles, including many flashbacks and also a memorable sexual intercourse scene that lasts for nearly eight minutes.

120 BPM opens with a flashback, but also a discussion in a small room, and also the introduction to our main character; Nathan. The viewer, just like Nathan — who is at his first ACT UP meeting — is thrown into a chaotic conversation of different sociological ideologies, as well as different propositions to carry out those different ideologies. The crowded lecture hall, located somewhere in Paris, is filled with loud voices and whistles; as the scene differs between a darkly-lit onstage assault of the time’s health secretary and the perspectives of the attack told by various participants. There’s a rush to it, even from the first second, a psychical tension that is unmet in the more pacifist discussions of today’s social awareness and respectability politics. It captivates you with its fake blood filled balloons and handcuffings in minute one, and continues to do that with real blood and many other handcuffings in the next hundred minutes to come.

ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), was an activist group found in the late 1980s of New York, of which we see the French branch in the movie.

Make no mistake, this is a dark and frightening movie, the director tells us with that very scene, but it is not dark because it has monsters or gun-wielding murderers in it. It is dark because it tells the history of darkness, or friends and lovers dying and weakening, of fear and ashes. It is frightening because it has to be: it was frightening back then, and it has to be frightening now. And with that, BPM makes its first signature for me: it doesn’t sugarcoat the problem, it doesn’t make it more “representable”. This is not a movie that looks at its victims as just sufferers: they’re also people – people who are angry and sometimes irrational. Campillo’s and Mangeot’s personal perspective of the time does incredible things for the enigmatic characterizations of their creations. We see them commit crimes and violently protest, we see the anger in their eyes and the unfounded sparkles of hope, and we see them do things that we, right now, may not agree; as the group vandalizes a drug company office that is told to be working on a cure, as one of them hisses at a representative that tells them he understands their fear, as they make fun of the guys in suit that claim to be helping them. They are alienated, they are radical, they are afraid: there’s no going around of it.

BPM’s first half is, for most part, universal. It is a play of ensemble roles, many of whom are positive, and positive in different parts of their lifes and positive with different conditions to survive in. One of them, Jérémie — who is played wonderfully by Ariel Borenstein — is much younger than the people he shares the lecture hall with. He comes to the meetings with his mother, and he is one of the first casualties. His child-like features is most likely a sadistic play on the casting director’s part, as one cannot honestly tell if the boy is fifteen or twenty. None of the options make his suffering more acceptable. Here, the question movie provides is mostly political: how radical is too radical, when your community is suffering and no-one seems to care? Is it better to do it by Sophie’s way: to carry out a peaceful protest and hope to be written in next day’s newspaper, or follow Sean’s spontaneous style: manhandling someone so that you know that you’re going to be written in the next day’s newspaper, even if its language is alienating. The movie doesn’t give a definitive answer, because there is none, as life usually doesn’t have black-and-white dilemmas. AIDS epidemic was a political and social conflict, but it was a personal one too; and with the very problematic nature of identity politics, the emotional response to one’s pain doesn’t always align with the logical solution.

Though, the movie has its victory moment when it moves to the second part, and we observe the blossoming romantic relationship between Nathan (played by Arnaud Valois) and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). One of them is positive, the other is not; one of them is hopeful, the other is reserved, one of them is new to ACT UP, the other is not. Sean gains his humanity after the first thirty minutes of the movie, when the camera does more than just to show his finger snaps or angry arguments. In a moment, Biscayart becomes the absolute best thing about the whole production, as the audience start to follow his ups and downs. The love between these two characters is something so refreshing even it its own category: it doesn’t focus on coming out, or the question of “will-they-won’t-they”. Even in the first few instances of unease and anxiety, they hold each other tightly. There are two scenes in particular here that in my opinion deserve being mentioned: one is among the lighter moments of the film, as they go to beach at the height of Sean’s sickness, and the other is just before his death. Both are close and personal, even making you feel as if you’re violating their privacy. A feeling of something unique fills the screen. It might be love, or it might be just the need to create an emotional connection when you need it the most. It doesn’t matter.

The film in itself can be depicted as many genres — of course, outside of its queer identity — it is a love story as well as a drama, a coming of age fiction and a dark horror of human condition, but most importantly, a dramatic narration of reality in its clearest sense. This understanding of “clearest sense” follows the audience in every turn, every use of music — or lack thereof — and of course, the movie’s duration, which was the single most mentioned thing that made the production imperfect. Many people, with righteous reasoning, thought that the last thirty minutes of the movie was unnecessary in their dragging of emotional outcome. For me, on the other hand, the overwhelming slowness of the mourning with its silence and darkness; as well as the little signs of life moving on, was one of the best parts of the movie, on the sole reasoning that it made me uncomfortable, and that discomfort made me look into something deeper than just what many versions of storytelling would think as the “ending”.

Going into the movie, I knew that it would end in someone’s death. Of course someone was going to die, and it was most probably going to be someone important, it was a movie about the AIDS epidemic. But it doesn’t. It continues after Sean’s death, because life continues after the death of someone you love, whether it be your son or lover or friend. And yes, it is a messy movie in some parts, but life is too.

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