How To Revive A Plague: “120 Beats Per Minute” And The Early Days Of ACT UP Paris

By eschewing a biopic, director Robin Campillo reaches a deeper emotional truth.

On December 10, 1989, members of ACT UP New York stormed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Midtown Manhattan. While thousands demonstrated outside, several dozen activists chained themselves to pews inside and laid down in the aisles, protesting what they saw as the Church’s contribution to the rising death toll from AIDS.

David Handschuh/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Two years later, activists from ACT UP Paris duplicated that action, interrupting All Saint’s Day Mass at the famed Notre-Dame de Paris. Among them was filmmaker Robin Campillo (Eastern Boys, Time Out), who has drawn on his experiences with ACT UP for his latest film. B.P.M. follows French AIDS activists as they face off against corporate greed, government indifference, and their own impending mortality.

While the film is emotionally true, Campillo says, it’s not strictly a biopic.

“I drew on my memories but I didn’t try for a documentary,” he tells NewNowNext. “With memories, sometimes the cards get out of order, or some are forgotten, and we end up with this specific narrative we call ‘fiction.’”

BPM/Celine Nieszawer
B.P.M. presents us with a ragtag cadre of ACT UP members—gay men, junkies, hemophiliacs, heartbroken moms—but at its heart are Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and Nathan (Arnaud Valois), who manage to find love in a truly hopeless place. Here again, though, Campillo shies away from literalism: “Nathan was a little bit me, my past,” he concedes. “I dressed a friend after he died with his mother there.”

But there were also pieces of Campillo in Thibaut, the group’s leader, based on ACT UP Paris co-founder Didier Lestrade.

BPM/Celine Nieszawer

What B.P.M. does recreate (and brilliantly so) is the inner workings of ACT UP: Yes, they were throwing fake blood at pharmacy executives, but they were also conducting meetings using Robert’s Rules of Order, bickering about strategies, and nagging members to sign up for subcommittees. Contrasting the frustrating, sometimes tedious, nature of real activism against a true life-and-death struggle, Campillo captures the sheer absurdity of the era.

For the most part, the film shies away from depicting the physical ravages of AIDS: For one thing, Campillo says, people were dying so quickly. “These young men were sick, but maybe they didn’t look so sick. And then they’d just snuff out—like a candle.”


For another, he was more interested in connecting emotionally with the audience, not giving them a horror show with the “stigmata” of the disease—rashes, wasting, Karposi’s sarcoma. “They were so tired of being alive,” he says of his friends. “That was more important to show, for me, than makeup.”

It’s telling that in one scene, when Thibault suggests putting sick, wheelchair-bound members at the front of a march, Sean lashes out, “Am I not sick enough?!” His question is directed as much at the audience as it is to Thibaut.

There have been numerous films set at the height of the AIDS crisis, but none by someone who was on the frontlines. Characters may have been invented for B.P.M., and chronology fudged, but Campillo reaches an emotional truth no history book can conjure.

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.