By Joey Nolfi
May 20, 2017 at 03:38 PM EDT
Credit: Courtesy Cannes Film Festival
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Following a monumental, multi-month stretch for LGBT cinema on the awards circuit, during which Moonlight — about a young, gay man’s journey toward self-acceptance — triumphed as the Academy’s best picture winner one year after Todd Haynes’ lesbian drama Carol scored six Oscar nods at the 2015 ceremony, French-Moroccan filmmaker Robin Campillo has stormed the Croisette with the AIDS activism drama 120 Beats Per Minute, which is being hailed as the 2017 Cannes Film Festival’s first major contender for the prestigious Palme d’Or.

“Robin Campillo’s Cannes competition film gracefully, sharply humanizes a historical tragedy,” Richard Lawson writes for Vanity Fair. “[The] deeply effective 120 Beats Per Minute is half sober and surveying docudrama, half wrenching personal illness narrative. Those two genres are fused together with an arresting artfulness, woozy and dreamy interludes mixing with the talky technical stuff to create a film that is broadly enlightening and piercingly intimate. It’s no wonder many are putting the film on the short list for the Palme d’Or… it’s a vital contribution to queer and political cinema, a testament to crusaders of recent history whose nobility does not preclude their complicated and individual humanity.”

His rave review of the expansive drama, which charts a dramatized version of the legacy of the gay men and women who fronted the Paris chapter of the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP, continues: “[120 Beats Per Minute is] a vital contribution to queer and political cinema, a testament to crusaders of recent history whose nobility does not preclude their complicated and individual humanity.”

In a less ecstatic (but nonetheless positive) reaction, IndieWire‘s Eric Kohn similarly lauds the film’s emotional impact.

“While hardly groundbreaking filmmaking, the movie’s familiar trajectory displays a patient approach to exploring the movement across a leisurely two hours and 20 minutes, sometimes to the detriment of the soulful material at its core. Nevertheless, assembling the story out of small moments and gripping exchanges, Campillo grounds this earnest drama in a sense of purpose,” his B-grade review reads. “While 120 Beats Per Second never quite takes off into the emotional intensity suggested by the material, it nevertheless arrives at a powerful raison d’etre, with layers of its ecosystem slowly assembling until a fully defined revolt reveals itself. The finale is a masterstroke of editing, as Campillo merges lively dance floor action and activist antics until they blur together as one. It’s a brilliant cap to a movie fixated on one point above all — no matter the desperation of this battlefield, the communal bonds ensure that the party rages on.”

With a jury that has already publicly squabbled about the kinds of movies they’ll be considering for the festival’s highest honor (Pedro Almodovar, president of this year’s collective, has voiced distaste with Netflix’s release model, which competition titles Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories will employ), it’s difficult to pinpoint which titles this year’s group will go for. Though critical taste is helpful in sifting out the rotten apples, juries can deviate from the media narrative with shocking results (I, Daniel Blake taking the top prize last year was a bold move, for example).

Though Haynes’ latest, Wonderstruck, was warmly received alongside The Square, Loveless, and Okja, 120 Beats Per Minute has seemingly got the goods to capture both the zeitgeist as it tugs universal emotional strings — key in winning over any jury.

Singling out the project’s “candidly queer” sensibility as vital perspective now more than ever, Variety‘s Guy Lodge perfectly sums up the film’s strengths in his ecstatic reaction, writing: “Robin Campillo’s outstanding AIDS activist drama melds the personal, the political and the erotic to heart-bursting effect… Unafraid of eroticism in the face of tragedy, this robust Cannes competition entry is nonetheless emotionally immediate enough to break out of the LGBT niche.”

Read on for more review excerpts from the film’s world premiere screening at Cannes.

Guy Lodge (Variety)
“As in Eastern Boys, Campillo’s predominantly candid, unvarnished shooting style wrongfoots viewers ahead of his gutsiest manipulations of sound and image — in this case, a stark, unsubtle passage of widescreen visual poetry that turns the Seine purple with the blood of the needlessly damned. The oblique title, meanwhile, refers not just to medical heart rates as bleakly tracked on hospital monitors, but to the euphoric rhythm of the electronic music that soundtracks ACT UP’s occasional disco breaks, in which matters of love, death and ideology are briefly lost to the rush of the dancefloor, and strobe-lit faces fade into dust motes and blood cells. In one of BPM’s most gently funny scenes, a well-meaning parent is ridiculed for suggesting ‘AIDS is me, AIDS is you, AIDS is us’ as a campaign slogan. By the end, you see where her critics are coming from: Campillo’s sexy, insightful, profoundly humane film is most moving in those ecstatic interludes where, for a blissed-out moment or two, AIDS is no one at all.”

David Rooney (The Hollywood Reporter)
What Larry Kramer’s trenchant play (and subsequent film) The Normal Heart did for the early days of AIDS activism in 1980s New York at the height of the crisis, Robin Campillo in 120 Beats Per Minute aims to do for the same subject in 1990s Paris, albeit in a more contemplative style. Drawing inspiration from his own experience as a member of frontline protest organization ACT UP, Campillo brings unquestionable conviction to his mission to ensure that the ineffectual response of Francois Mitterand’s government at the time and the refusal of French drug companies to expedite potential breakthrough treatments are not forgotten.”

Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian)
“It’s a compelling feature about love, life and friendship which can be compared to David France’s 2012 documentary How To Survive A Plague, about ACT UP in the United States. As a fictional representation, it sometimes looks like a politicised, if de-romanticised, version of something like Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is The Warmest Colour, from 2013… This film has what its title implies: a heartbeat. It is full of cinematic life.”

Eric Kohn (IndieWire)
“This isn’t a characteristic project for Campillo, best known to English-language audiences for They Live, the film that inspired the Twin Peaks-like TV series The Returned, and Eastern Boys, a taut gay thriller in which Russian men posing as prostitutes rob an older man. “120 Beats Per Minute” contains no such far-reaching hooks, instead bearing a closer resemblance to the social-realism of Campillo’s screenwriting with collaborator Laurent Cantet, which includes the Palme d’Or-winning high school drama The Class. Like that movie, the main narrative engine of 120 Beats Per Minute is talk — profound debates, casual chatter, furious showdowns — and the sturdy performances that bring it to life.”

Richard Lawson (Vanity Fair)
“And I hope this movie will be given the distribution and marketing it deserves, as the traumas of the 1980s and 90s fade in the rearview—even while AIDS rates are troublingly on the rise again. The film’s political and moral weight should not overshadow the artistry of its design, though, nor the quiet profundity of its unreserved and admirable approach to gay intimacy. Campillo has given his movie the breath of true life. It grieves and triumphs and haunts with abounding grace and understanding, its heartbeat thumping with genuine, undeniable resonance.”

120 Beats Per Minute

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