In our day and age, there’s no dearth of a certain kind of queer visibility, but it’s still somewhat rare to see depictions of LGBT collectivity on the big and small screens. In fact, the flamboyant individualism that is so often affixed to queerness in mass media often seems to preclude just this kind of collective impulse, splintering off the broad mass of people gathered under the LGBT umbrella into so many atomised individuals, whose eccentricities often seem to have little to do with sexual or gender orientation at all. It’s quite bracing, then, to encounter a film like 120 BPM, Robin Campillo’s semi-autobiographical account of his involvement in the Paris branch of ACT UP in the 1980s, in which queerness is so overwhelmingly and urgently equated with the will to collective action, and the challenges faced to collective action. Opening with an ACT UP meeting outlining the etiquette, ethos and significance of collective discourse, and an ACT UP intervention that some members think has gone too far – or become too confrontational – the film charts the turmoils and travails of trying to organise a movement against a mainstream culture that was disinterested in it, but also a marginalised culture that was also often disinterested in it, with Campillo eloquently capturing the schism between older gay discourses of liberation and newer queer discourses of caution at this particular moment.
Much of what ensues plays out as a docudrama, as Campillo draws upon his experiences to outline daily life in the ACT UP group, the divisions within the group, and some of the conditions for inclusion in the group, such as being prepared to publically identify as HIV-positive regardless of actual HIV status. For the most part, the group’s efforts are focused, at this moment in time, on getting medical companies to be more transparent about research into HIV and about their misuse of funding related to research into HIV. Alongside this more pragmatic and documentary-oriented approach, however, are a series of sudden shifts in scale and register, with Campillo often cutting between collective discussions and molecular, granular imagery, often by way of the dance floor, which gathers the tactile proximity and potency of the ACT UP collective into a broader sensuous potentiality, but also frees up the camera to drift above the crowd and dwell on the particles of dust and sweat flickering through the air. In the first of these scenes, this microscopic imagery segues into actual microscopic footage of one of the earliest and crudest inhibitors of HIV, paving the way for a film that whose most procedural and practical moments often collapse, quite suddenly, into a more mystical and mysterious apprehension of the wider ramfications of AIDS, especially for the broadly queer demographic around which the film largely revolves.
These transitional moments grow more flamboyant as the film proceeds, culminating with an extraordinary montage sequence in which we cut from the dust given off by a party, to a solitary hospital bed, to a panorama of Paris, to an aerial shot of the Seine further upriver, where the group has introduced red dye to stain the water the colour of blood. Throughout all these escalating and disjunctive shifts in scale, the documentary imperative never quite dissipates – partly because Campillo increasingly fuses actual historical footage with his hand-held, downbeat sequences – but is instead absorbed into the pervasive hope that even the most agonised moments in the AIDS struggle can be the platform for something genuinely world-changing, and that even the most granular moments of protest can have a global effect If conceived of in the right possible way. Whereas an older generation of gay liberation was focused on solidarity, cohesion and metaphors of identity, ACT UP seems to thrive more on dispersion, diversity and metonyms of contiguity, as if tactically orchestrating a series of ellipses and disjunctions as much as a unified movement. Specifically, the three spaces most critical to ACT UP’s community – the meeting hall, the bedroom and the dance floor – remain only tactitly and obliquely related to one another within ACT UP discourse itself, as if the failure of gay liberation – and its fusion of these three spaces – to combat AIDS has necessitated a more oblique approach to identity as well.
The result, however, is an extraordinarily tactile and embodied sense of collectivity, as Campillo distends the space between the most microcosmic and private of moments, and the most expansive and anonymous of encounters, until the significance of the group lies precisely in its connections and contiguities rather than any single gesture or space of protest that can be co-opted or appropriated in the way that gay liberation seems to have been, at least as it is presented here. For that reason, ACT UP can’t quite be said to rally, or demonstrate, or protest – at least not in this film – so much as “occupy” the spaces in which sexual discourse is generated and maintained, spaces whose architecture is nearly always designed expressly to preclude this kind of occupation, and whose parameters remain much more hostile and inimical to queerness than the public streets and squares of gay pride parades. Yet it’s at these moments that the molecularity of ACT UP becomes its greatest asset, just as it’s the very specificity of the group that produces gestures of proportionately radical solidarity from straight folk and from those not actually infected with HIV – the very opposite of a marriage equality profile frame on Facebook – building an extraordinarily rousing vision of all the non-queer people who played their part in these harrowing times.
That’s not to say, either, that the film shies away from interpersonal or individual communion, or from depictions of sex, but that these are subsumed back into the collective ambience in quite an extraordinary and dexterous way. Much of this part of 120 BPM focuses on the relationship between Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a new addition to the group who is HIV-negative, and Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), a veteran of the group who is entering a late stage of AIDS. Together, these two characters encapsulate so much of the film, but they’re also individuated and given their own stories in a beautiful way too, as well as gifted with some of the most gorgeous sex scenes I’ve seen on the big screen in a long time. Their first encounter, in particular, is wonderfully drawn, interspersed with conversation, curiosity, compassion and – above all – care, while always aborbed into – or perhaps just never dissociated from – the nurturing tactility that pervades ACT UP as a whole. Virtually every sex act, no matter how explicit or fetishistic, takes place during a kiss or caress, no matter how much the two men have to contrive or contort their two bodies to do so – part of an ongoing, emergent, collective hug that clarifies just how much the fear of supposed queer “hedonism” is more often a fear of a particularly radical model of care based upon collective responsibility for bodies, rather than individual ownership of bodies.
Unlike so many novels and films made about gay culture, then, there’re very little time for partying here, except in an incidental and momentary way, even as the life of the party is also completely continuous with and contiguous to the life of the collective as a whole. While 120 BPM may “centre” on a romance, then, the effect isn’t exactly to individualise the collective so much as capture the way in which this collective process exceeds a single lifespan, if only because lifespans have been so radically compromised by the disease it is fighting against. At a more abstract level, then, Campillo never “opposes” or “reconciles” the individual and collective in a conventional way, nor does he suggest that every individual “represents” the collective either. Instead, that more metaphorical and heteronormative formulation is here replaced by a queerer metonymy, in which everyone’s story is contiguous to everybody else’s, just as everybody’s body is contiguous to everybody else’s, leading to the question that eventually preoccupies the third act of the film – how to retain this metonymy and molecularity while brokering a broader visibility, a question that eventually comes down to how to adequately articulate ACT UP at the next Parisian Pride Parade without being met with hostility, or tempering the sense of pride driving the parade.
While Campillo never offers a practical response to that question, he does offer a series of aesthetic responses, as if offering this coalition between radical and mainstream queer movements as one that – still – has to be articulated aesthetically before it can be articulated pragmatically, so radically does it depart from the world in which these characters, and the contemporary audience, still live. First and foremost, that aesthetic gesture takes the form of the group’s innovative anti-protest, which consists of marching through the streets of Paris in the wake of the pride parade, but then returning to their more familiar mode of occupation by lying down in a square at the end of the walk, subsuming the upright, upbeat, heads-held-high register of the parade into a more morbid sense of urgency, and of the need to reframe solidarity in terms of a more radical collectivity. This gesture is mirrored in the extraordinarily executed final sequence, which starts with the most traumatically private and personal moment of the film – Nathan acceding to Sean’s request to euthanise him – and then progressively situates it within the collective one final time. In a perfectly paced sequence, we’re drawn back from that unbearable deathbed scene as the ACT UP members arrive, in twos and threes, to pay their respects. Watching them flood the room, and give homage, made me realise just how diverse this group of protestors was, and how much more individuated than even the most flamboyantly individualist of most mainstream queerness, precisely – and ironically – because of how the collective itself articulates and embraces their differences.
In the space of about fifteen minutes, then, we move from the isolation of a single deathbed to a gathering around a deathbed, as Sean’s last requests are read, a communique from the head of ACT UP is read, and Sean’s mother agrees that his ashes can be used, as he wished, in an act of protest, so long as she can keep some of them for herself. We now cut to the final, incredible scene, in which the group storm a medical insurer’s convention and fling the ashes over their luxurious buffets. As the last of the film’s many granular particles make their way into the ether, Campillo finally, beautifully, fuses the spaces of sex, solidarity and collectivity in one luminous sequence, as strobe lights flash out over the protest and a rapid montage sequence culminates every image in the film into an abstraction and refinement of the collective spirit that has pervaded every scene. If ACT UP is defined by its connections and contiguities, and its openness to indefinite connections and contiguities, then montage is the perfect and purest language to express this, with Campillo now retrospectively framing the events of the group as an exercise in montage – in making connections laterally, spontaneously and provisionally in order to stay one step ahead of the forces of cultural appropriation, which are nothing if not linear in their effort to absorb and accumulate everything in their purview.
It would be impossible to discuss this final scene, however, without briefly mentioning the film’s soundtrack, since it’s only through sound, and music, that this final fusion occurs. From the opening scene, two musical motifs pervade the film – a dance beat and a melodic fragment of about ten seconds length. Not unlike the “little phrase” that proves so haunting and pervasive to Marcel Proust’s narrator in Swann’s Way, this piece of music weaves its way in and out of the narrative, always shifting and turning, but always anchored in the same key chord progression as well. As a queer person who grew up in the 90s, this progression was immediately, achingly, gorgeously familiar as the substrate and structure of feeling for a whole world of electronica that now feels inexorably queer-oriented, even or especially if it wasn’t always articulated directly as such at the time. Some chord progressions can contain a whole era, and so it is with this one, capturing a feeling of queerness that I know I had before I even knew I was queer – a longing for some collective reckoning with the weight of a history that was always somehow turned against you, but that could be evaded, or at least embraced as a form of pleasurable melancholy, under the right circumstances and amidst the right conjunction or collective of bodies. Throughout the majority of 120 BPM, that motif, and the dance beat, are muted and dissociated from one another, but they finally come together as one in this final montage sequence, as if the strategic obliquities of ACT UP – the need to keep things apart – were part of the same impulse that saw dance music of this time dissociated and deconstructed into its component parts in order to make its meaning truly felt, and its wholeness properly whole.
In these final moments, then, Campillo beautifully manages to inhabit the exact point at which the components of the dance track come into contact, and the exact point at which the different and disparate parts of the collective come into contact. That’s a moment of meeting, but also of immediate dispersal once again – a momentary meeting – which is perhaps why the work of 120 BPM feels so attuned to the present, and so open-ended in its world-building. Like Call Me By Your Name, then, this is a film that feels made for the audience who might have watched it at the time – and can now only experience its intervention as a kind of belatedness – but also as a reminder of their legacy, significance and – in many cases – their ongoing existence in the present moment. Given how acutely that double audience applies to Campillo himself – who as a member of ACT UP now revisits it as historical spectacle – this makes for his deftest and most tactile film, a film in which the hand of the director is everywhere present, caressing his mise-en-scenes in the same way that every member of the collective, in one way or another, caresses and cares for each other. Like some of the most memorably utopian and relation visions of queer futurity, then, 120 BPM is above all driven by hand to body contact, and the power and assurance of the hands of a stranger to provide sustenance – “politics in the first person.”