French director Robin Campillo returns to his AIDS activism days in 120BPM.
Campillo’s third feature won the Grand Prix at Cannes this year and is France’s submission for the foreign-language Oscar. Set in the early 1990s, it’s an impassioned, Paris-set portrait of AIDS activist group ACT UP, as well as a love story between two of the group’s members.
You were a member of ACT UP, which was frequently savaged by French media in the 1990s. Did you want to set the record straight with this film?
I didn’t approach the film with an aim to restore any truths. I thought of it more as a collective self-portrait. When I joined ACT UP, there had been 10 years of the epidemic, and we were considered the “nice gays” who would eventually die. Everyone was saying how sad it was, but that was the way things were. We decided to become the nasty fags and dykes, and it felt extremely liberating to say whatever we wanted. For me, it was a deliverance, like a second sexual revolution as well as a political one, and I wanted to capture that energy.
There haven’t been many French films that deal with AIDS so directly…
I think that the AIDS epidemic put my will to make films into crisis. By that I mean that the cinema I like, the Nouvelle Vague, Bresson etc – which is not particularly original for a Frenchman, I realise – doesn’t belong to the same reality as the AIDS crisis. These films talk of people in good health. There’s no illness in Godard. The only film I can think of as an exception to the rule is Agnes Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7, which is very close to some of the things I felt and lived through in the 1980s.
120BPM is extremely dark, yet there’s a sort of joyful energy in it…
I spent a lot of time thinking about why there was joy and jubilation in ACT UP. It was because we were reclaiming power over the epidemic, and over those who intellectually pontificated by equating sex with death. It’s a sexually transmitted disease, sure, but we were fighting against this notion of sex and death becoming intertwined. What changed everything were condoms – with them, we took back sex and our sexual lives the way we loved them. That’s why for people of my generation, the idea of abandoning rubbers can seem weird, because for us, it was such a cause of joy and liberation. There has been so much good news regarding AIDS treatments since, but for us at the time, it wasn’t even a hypothesis or thinkable. I never personally liked using condoms but I’ve always used them, it’s as simple as that! I completely understand the desire to fuck without one, but I’m scared that many people might think that they’re magically protected because there are other strategies and options now. I can’t speak for other countries, but I feel that in France, prevention and screening campaigns should be relaunched.
Do you see potential for the film to be used as an educational tool?
The French government wanted to use it, but we refused. I didn’t want to cast myself as a sermoniser. The film is a fiction, and while it tackles real-life subjects, I can’t deny I’m a bit disconnected from the fight against AIDS now. I haven’t been a militant for 10 years, and I don’t think it’s my role to give lessons.
How did you assemble your sizeable cast?
I usually take a lot of time with casting and it was particularly complicated with this film. It took me nine months to put together the whole team, with a lot of roles swapped for the sake of on-screen chemistry. I try not to box people in or impose a role on them. For me, it’s much better to approach casting by saying that the characters will be the people you have before doing auditions. For instance, if I were to cast you as Nathan, Nathan wouldn’t be the same. There’s a parallel world where you’re my Nathan and the film feels and looks different. It’s vital to not be stubborn and let things take their natural course, to a degree.
How did you find your two leads?
I met Nahuel (Pérez Biscavart), who plays Sean, in a café and he was fantastic. He came in for a few screen tests and there was something baroque about his acting. He’s a very expressive performer and when his character is ill and in hospital, I knew he had to stop playing Sean like he did before, so that the audience would miss even more this gregarious and vibrant character he’d been playing up until then. As for Arnaud (Valois), who plays Nathan, I originally thought he was too good looking for part but he’s extraordinary. To go back to what I was just saying, I’d hate to have missed out on his performance because I stuck to the way I originally imagined the character. It’s rare in France to find actors who can do ‘first degree’, who aren’t naïve per se but can still act and commit to a moment without distancing themselves from the character. Arnaud can do that.
The debate scenes give the film a documentary feel, but never seem stilted. How did you achieve this?
I have to confess I was worried that they would be dull! We started by letting the actors improvise a little and we did three days of rehearsals just for the debate scenes, which proved invaluable. When it came to the actual shoot, my DP Jeanne Lapoirie and I shot the scenes in one take with three cameras. The first 20-minute take was always a catastrophe, but the actors always moved forward and stepped it up for the second take, mirroring the narrative to a degree. By the end I had about 140 hours of rushes, but it was worth it, especially for the happy accidents that occurred during the early takes.
How much improv was allowed on set?
We started by letting them improvise a little. I don’t do scenes shot by shot, nor do I like to stringently block a scene. Unlike many directors, I’m not keen on manipulating puppets and having absolute control over everything. It’s not always easy to cede control over something you’ve spent so much time writing and planning on your own, but it’s necessary to let people take the film and watch what they do with it, whilst modifying certain aspects bit by bit. It’s a lot like in my previous film Eastern Boys, in which a man allows himself to be invaded, so to speak, by others. For me, that’s what a film is: people come to your house, have a party around you, and while it can be disquieting, it’s also a promise. I function trying to understand what I’m doing by doing it, and marrying the formal with the unpredictable.
Why 120 BPM as the title?
Originally I just wanted it to be called BPM. But I didn’t like the elitist nature of it, that it would only speak to those who like house music. In France, few people say “BPM” – they’ll say “beats per minute”, but not the abbreviation. So, 120 – which is the tempo of house music, but also the acceleration of cardiac rhythm when you’re in love, or scared.
It also hearkens back to the scene in the club where time seems to stop.
Exactly! The title imposed itself in a way, as it evokes for me time passing and age. As silly as it may sound, I have the strong sensation of a temporal paradox with regards to ageing – when I think of what I did in ACT UP in the space of one year, I realise that when you’re younger, you don’t exist in the same temporality. It’s almost science fiction. When I think about my youth, the title makes a lot of sense – the rhythm was a lot stronger then.
120 BPM Directed by Robin Campillo (France 2017) with Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois. Starts November 30
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