Remembering ACT UP and the AIDS crisis in France

The film 120 Battements Par Minute continues to resonate years later.

Film Review


120 Battements par Minute, released in the U.S. as BPM. Image courtesy of IMDB.


120 Battements par Minute (released as BPM in the U.S.) presents an honest portrayal of the French AIDS crisis in the 1990s, focusing on the activist movement ACT UP. This movement instigated protests which aimed to encourage greater recognition of the AIDS crisis by the French government, lobbying for increased medical research into life-saving drugs to combat this fatal illness.


Directed by Robin Campillo, this film was incredibly well-received when it was first released in 2017, winning the Grand Prix at Cannes and several César awards. While it may centre on the struggle of the 1990s, the actions and issues portrayed in the film are still relevant today. We find ourselves in a current age of activism and mass protests, and Pride celebrations are now a central part of our lives. And what better month than June, marking Pride across the globe, to consider the relevance of this film today.


BPM focuses on the individuals involved in the ACT UP movement. For most of the film, the focus is on newcomer Nathan (played by Arnaud Valois) who becomes more and more involved in the protests run by the movement. Since not a lot is known about ACT UP, this film acts as recognition of this important group and their activism.


One of the more zealous ACT UP members, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), takes Nathan under his wing, and a relationship soon emerges between the two members. Sean is HIV-positive, and their relationship is over-shadowed by understandable fear. Throughout the film, Sean and Nathan have many important conversations about sex and relationships, honestly portraying the climate of fear experienced across the world. They discuss safe sex, as well as past relationships which have been affected by the crisis.


The scenes depicting ACT UP protests are particularly powerful to watch, and the struggle of activists to increase understanding of the crisis in France is brilliantly portrayed. In one scene, members of the movement stage a raid on local medical professionals, throwing pouches of fake blood and smearing it all over the walls. This is intended to raise awareness of the gravity of the AIDS crisis — one which affected not just the gay community, but women and vulnerable groups, such as prostitutes and drug-users.


Campillo also chooses to show more peaceful forms of protest in BPM, depicting a silent "lie-in" staged by the members of ACT UP. This event is particularly haunting, with the members lying on the floor in silence, trying to show how this illness contributed to a rising number of deaths. And yet the French government still failed to recognize the gravity of this crisis.


While the film focuses on the AIDS crisis in France, these protests reflect the worldwide need for recognition, altering how we view this illness and how we can protect against it. This issue is not completely in the past, with perceived ideas and a lack of understanding still leading to confusion about this fatal illness across the world.


For example, in the film, ACT UP promotes healthy sexual choices, handing out protection at local secondary schools. The backlash and abuse the members receive during this scene shows the lack of understanding surrounding this illness. This lack of understanding is relevant to the continuing "taboo" surrounding HIV and AIDS today, and the idea that heterosexual people cannot suffer from this illness.


Over 20 years after the AIDS crisis hit the world, the fear of sexually-transmitted illnesses is a lot less prevalent than it was in the years directly following the crisis. Young people today have not grown up with the same fear as previous generations. This has led to an increased number of reports of sexually-transmitted illnesses.


The film accurately portrays the importance of the gay community during this difficult time, and there is a real camaraderie between ACT UP members. Since the 1990s, the importance of this community has only grown, with June marking Pride month across the globe. The scene depicting gay pride celebrations is particularly relevant today, linking to the importance of the LGBTQ+ community in society.


Fiery ACT UP members such as Sophie (Adèle Haenel) discuss how to best celebrate Pride at a time of great sadness, following the death of many group members. They decide to celebrate Pride anyway, depicting the joy to be taken in celebrating one’s sexuality — the ACT UP members do not feel ashamed, even during this ensuing crisis. The message portrayed is one of openness and belonging, and is reflected in celebrations of LGBTQ+ communities today.


BPM  presents an honest and gritty portrayal of the AIDS crisis and those who experienced the illness. From the awkward conversations between Nathan and Sean concerning safe sex, to the deterioration of Sean’s mental and physical health as his illness worsens, BPM  portrays the AIDS crisis without sugar-coating it. But while this film may depict the harsh struggle of the 1990s in all its gritty reality, it is clear that its themes are just as relevant to the global society of today.



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Film, LGBTQ, Review, France, HIV, AIDS, Activism, Social Justice