Silence = Mort: A Critical Analysis of Minority Representation through Robin Campillo’s 120 BPM

by Ariel Hugues

Social institutions can construct harmful stigmas within minority groups, based on an absence of understanding and destructive ignorance.  When stigmatized minorities are targeted by a global crisis, it is easy for society to further isolate “the other” and deem them unworthy of rights— blindly dismissing their fear, urgency, and lives.  A prime example of this is the HIV/AIDS crisis during the 1980s-90s.  The toxicity of societal misrepresentation throughout LGBTQ+ communities, drug users, and sex workers, mixed with propaganda, and lack of formal information/education regarding the disease, significantly assisted the deaths of 22 million hemophiliacs (Friedman, 21).  Writer-director Robin Campillo serves his film, 120 BPM (Beats per Minute), as a snapshot of resistance within the early days of the AIDS crisis, by encapsulating the urgency of the activist group, ACT UP- Paris.  The film illustrates the ways in which ACT UP lobbied for research, treatments, and legislation for those affected, while narrating a tender relationship between two of its members— the radical, inhibited Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), and the shyer, more watchful Nathan (Arnaud Valois).  120 BPM is high in both political content and intent, as it illustrates discrimination and resistance of minorities through cinematic aesthetic, propaganda, systemic institutions, sex, and music.   Campillo’s intention was to utilize film in a way that would produce the visibility that was so desperately needed 25 years ago.  

Political Content: Politics in the First Person

120 BPM lives its “politics in the first person”, as Campillo places the viewer dead-center in the ACT UP community. This encourages a deeper connection between the audience and the tension/urgency sewn within the pandemic.  There is a documentary-style imperativeness to early scenes that feels like eavesdropping on an underground resistance within an international war.  Viewers witness the passionate debates, boiling sense of injustice and the call for action among those who are aware that time is limited.

The theme of blood is prevalent throughout the film, as activists are often seen catapulting fake blood at politicians, or within the walls of pharmaceutical labs.  During one of ACT UP’s protests, there is a closeup of the Melton Pharm logo splattered acutely with fake blood.  The shot lingers for a moment too long, which paints a picture of the relationship leading medical companies had with urgent hemophiliacs in the 90’s— tense, nescient, and distant. Ronald Bayer, author of Blood Feuds: Aids, Blood, and the Politics of Medical Disaster, suggests that “blood has been viewed as the apogee of purity and the nadir of filth: cited as both the basis for unity and the justification for war” (Bayer, 2).  The author furthers this analysis by discussing the Contaminated Blood Scandal of the 1970s, stating, “tens of thousands of people… …received blood infected with [HIV/AIDS]” (3).  This scandal is discussed in the film between two of the main activists, resulting in a fiery argument. Bayer concludes that “blood became the subject of bitter political disagreements…  …and had become the vector for an international iatrogenic catastrophe” (3).  Larger amounts of blood are presented throughout the film as Sean’s health worsens.  Before Sean is euthanized, he has a dream of the Seine River turning crimson.  Bird’s eye shots of the river are explored slowly, as background noises of Sean’s sporadic moans and heavy breathing fill the scene.  The diegetic sounds depict the prodigious blood spill as an uncomfortable nightmare, but the viewer is left wondering if the vast visibility of blood is, instead, an overwhelming fantasy.

Propaganda and Minority Groups

Propaganda throughout the literature (particularly religious literature) enabled stigmatized ideologies about AIDS to be widely accepted by society. During a meeting scene, ACT UP pulls an excerpt from a book written by respected priest and psychoanalyst, Tony Anatrella, reading: “[AIDS] is a virus spread pathologically in closed circuits… …it is the pathology of incest. He who lives by the same dies by the same. The prevalence of AIDS among homosexuals or addicts reveals the incestuous nature of these closed worlds.” (120 BPM)

ACT UP reacted to discriminatory propaganda by creating stickers that read, “Warning: this book contains homophobic ideas that stigmatize AIDS victims or HIV positive people” (120 BPM).  Members stuck them on the flyleaf of literature containing repellent ideas of sociologists or philosophers who falsely acted as allies to the affected communities.  Seth Kalichman, et al., suggests that such stigmas are “pervasive, and have interfered with HIV/AIDS prevention, testing, and treatment” (660).  This further depicts the isolation that society had forged between themselves and minorities, as they were “unaffected” and “unharmed”, thus reinforcing their ignorance to identity as “resilient”, “pure” and “better than” (Sengupta, et al., 1076). Furthermore, there is evidence that “AIDS stigmas can become internalized among individuals living with HIV/AIDS” (661), which deepens the harmfulness attached to these ideologies.

Sadly, it was not only “unharmed” heterosexual and/or religious communities that discriminated against those infected, but also members of LGBTQ+ communities.  During 120 BPM, a flashback scene interjects of two gay bypassers observing ACT UP members hanging posters that advertise awareness.  They announce, “You scare us with your posters. Get off our backs!”, to which the members respond, “Be scared of AIDS instead.” (120 BPM).  This ironic ignorance stems from the denial of the disease’s severity, which was reinforced by government, politicians, and health boards (Sengupta, 1082).  Many individuals who identified as gay, quickly “ran back into the closet” (1083) after the inception of the AIDS crisis, due to an imposing “fear of the unknown” (1084).  During the 1990s, posters were the most significant source of AIDS awareness (Cantor, 669), as early posters conveyed the “shock that accompanied the epidemic”, whereas those from later years display “improved knowledge and understanding of HIV” (670).

Cinematic strategies that 120 BPM implemented to demonstrate minority groups’ resistance to stigma and silence are through ACT UP’s sacred rituals of activism.  Members would hold radical “funerals” for members who had died–  marching loudly behind herses, scattering ashes at ornate pharmaceutical receptions – anything to stimulate mainstream attention to the masses who were losing their lives to the “gay plague” (Sengupta, et al., 1087).  An aerial shot of the activists lining the streets of Paris with their bodies – a corpse parade – is cut with archive footage of the real die-in in the late 1980s (Jackson, 289). This is Campillo’s gift: the scope of the history being analyzed is never negotiated, regardless of the film’s flourishing investments in the personal relationships on the ground.  During these protests, Sean carries a sign that reads “SILENCE = MORT”.  If silence is death, so is stillness: 120 BPM is cinema in ceaseless forward motion.

Political Intent: AIDS Narratives

Throughout the majority of mainstream AIDS narratives, sex is often reduced to a shameful vehicle for contamination, rather than a source of euphoric, living pleasure.  Motion pictures such as Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and Jonathan Demmes Philadelphia (1994) were cautious in treating the history of the pandemic with hospital gloves, but this tendency towards solemness frames the film’s central voyage as a stoic and sexless death march. However, in 120 BPM, sex is used as a source of protest against these ideals.

During a compelling sex scene between Sean and Nathan, Sean discusses how he became infected during his first time. Suddenly, his past lover appears in the room, penetrating him while Sean retells this vivid, almost eerie return to the past.  It is as though sexual intimacy is a sole, unitary experience, divided by time but distinguished only by different partners in different rooms.  Afterward, Nathan narrates his own sexual past, and the scene cuts to yet another room with another man in it.  As Sean and Nathan discuss their pasts, the scene turns into somewhat of a foursome, illustrating that it is equally dismal and humourous how the people we have sex with are, in a sense, interconnected with one another.

The most vital feature of the film’s DNA consists of DJ Arnaud Rebotini’s discordant, whirring, house-inflected score.  The title itself, 120 Beats per Minute, is an homage to the pulse of house music.  The film’s talkiness is often interjected with vibrant club scenes that fade in and out, capturing ACT UP members sweating, kissing, and dancing at intimate proximity.  What feels revolutionary about the film’s main theme, is the way characters resist the urge to give up the fight, as they attain moments of ecstatic bliss while in the grip of a crippling pandemic. The motif of music throughout the film is a buoyant reminder that, even when an individual is on their deathbed, there is a pulse.  Cinematic editing fluctuates between static narrative and fluid memory; in one scene, set to Mr. Fingers 1992 track “What About This Love”, the camera focuses on dust particles lit by strobe lights, which hover above the crowd and transform into abstract visuals of floating blood cells.  During this scene, I cannot help but think that loud clubs possess the same atmospheric elements as cinemas, as they are places we go to be simultaneously together and alone, in the dark.

After Sean is euthanized by Nathan, ACT UP throws a political funeral at a sophisticated gathering for Melton Pharm.  Members are seen chanting, lying on the floor, and throwing his ashes like confetti.  Cinematic effects alter the protest into a club atmosphere with pulsating house music.  Sean’s ashes dissolve into flecks of light that transform into a labyrinth of T cells, and the film ends.  Much like ACT UP’s non-hierarchical infrastructure, sex, dancing and the consistent beat of music are presented as an integral form of explicit action.

Conclusion

Through the vehicles of visual aesthetics, propaganda, lack of urgency from systemic institutions, sex, and music, 120 BPM illustrates the heart-wrenching discrimination and resistance that was prevalent throughout the AIDS crisis of the 1990s in France.  The screen time Campillo devotes to the activism of ACT UP allows audiences to perceive characters as one more casualty among a generation of hemophiliacs, gays, drug addicts and prostitutes who were failed by a society that showed no humanity to them.  The writer-director discends an effective message through the film’s motifs: democracy = transparency.

The infighting and tension Campillo paints throughout the film is something that resonates with audiences long after its final scene.  120 BPM is not a sugar-coated memory of a neglected political movement, but the pulling of the afflictive past into present day. Yet Campillo is conscientious to sculpt the AIDS crisis as both an intimate tragedy and a global epidemic.  The film is a lump-in-the-throat love story but should also resonate on a political degree as a testimony to the force of activism, and how it can alert and revive an indifferent world.  The paradox of 120 BPM is its virtue: in one’s dying gasps, one must grasp at life.

Works Cited

Cantor, Abi. “Visualising the AIDS crisis.” The Lancet Infectious Diseases; September 2012: 669-670.

Dallas Buyers Club. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée.Voltage Pictures, 15 Dec. 2013.

Friedman, Willa. “Corruption and asserting AIDS deaths.” World Development, 2018: 21.

Jackson, Julian. “Living in Arcadia: Homosexuality, Politics, and Morality in France from the Liberation to AIDS.” Department of History, University of Chicago, 15 Dec. 2009: 289.

Kalichman, Seth, et al. “Measuring AIDS stigmas in people living with HIV/AIDS: the Internalized AIDS-Related Stigma Scale.” Department of Psychology, University of Connecticut, 2007: 660-661.

Philadelphia. Directed by Jonathan Demme.  Tri-Star Pictures, 14 Jan. 1994. 

Sengupta, Sohini, et al. “HIV Interventions to Reduce HIV/AIDS Stigma: A Systematic Review.” AIDS and Behaviour, August 2011: 1076-1087.

Swinbanks, David. “AIDS advisers disagree over events in the HIV blood scandal.” London: Oxford University Press, April 25, 1996: 2-3. 120 BPM (Beats per Minute). Directed by Robin Campillo. France 3, 30 May 2017.

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