22 August

All about Robin Campillo's new film: “120 beats per minute”

 

At the 70th Cannes Film Festival, hearts were beating in unison for Robin Campillo’s new film, which walked off with the Jury Prize. Recounting the beginnings of the AIDS-activist group Act Up, it takes us back to the early days of the epidemic in France, when the vital energy of youth fought for their lives against the ravages of the killer virus. A powerful and political take on their struggle, this stylish film also questions the role of activism today. Numéro spoke to Campillo about the making of this maverick movie, which stands apart in the French cinema scene.

By Olivier Joyard

NUMÉRO: 120 Beats Per Minute is based on personal experience.

Robin Campillo: The idea for this film started growing in my mind after the very first articles I read about AIDS. Something happened at that moment which was like science fiction. The portending catastrophe, especially for gay men, was so incredible that it drove me into an extreme state of existential doubt. In 1982, Libération published an article which they entitled “The gay cancer.” I remember that I woke up with marks on my body; I went to see a doctor with the paper under my arm! He told me, “Perhaps you’ll catch AIDS, but for the time being all you have is a fungal infection.” Later on there were the famous Paris-Match photos which I used in the film, the first portrait of a couple in which one of the partners was sick. I pushed those images to the back of my mind in a sort of denial, and I started film school. To a certain extent movie-making was a shield for me.

 

How did you navigate the junction between your desire to join the Act Up fight and to make movies?

I had a very strong impression that the films I loved couldn’t talk about AIDS. Like many of us in France, I’m a child of the Nouvelle Vague. At the time, I admired figures like Éric Rohmer or the Straubs. In 1983, just before starting film school, I went onto the set of L’Argent, the last film made by Robert Bresson, who was a hero for me. I felt that this was a type of movie-making that couldn’t take a hold of a subject like that. It’s why I spent a long time trying to work out what films to make. The shorts I made at film school are pretty far removed from what I was living through at the time. They’re not embodied. My whole work is about finding how to get back to embodiment. For me, joining Act Up was an opportunity to finally establish a direct relationship with an event that had had enormous importance in my life.

 

What made you decide to go back to your Act Up period 20 years later?

First of all, inside of me it just had to come out. Then there was all the debate about gay marriage in France and the question of continuing the campaign for safe sex among gays. I wanted to talk to today’s young gays, but not in a paternalistic way. It simply seemed to me that my story was forgotten or misunderstood. Telling it was also a way of talking about a moment when a certain number of people, especially on the gay scene, said to themselves, “We’re not going to be passive victims of this disease anymore, we’re going to become influential participants.” This moment of realization happened at that moment among the members of Act Up. We were fed up with being “nice gays” who were victims of the epidemic, and we became “nasty queers” who decided to burst forth into the public eye.

 

That’s still very contemporary: minorities today think in the same ways you did about visibility.

I have a feeling that the same things are said about other minority political movements as were said about Act Up: “They’re closed in on themselves, they’re not open to others…” We made use of Anglo-Saxon terms and methods which came from the original Act Up, and no one in France could deal with that. People hated the word “community” which they put in the same basket as “communitarianism.” Community, identity, ghetto: it was all the same for them. I remember an article written by Communist members of parliament which said that our methods were too foreign. As though one had to be in a French culture of contestation in order to get heard.

 

You weren’t the descendants of May 1968…

We could identify with certain aims of the 68 uprisings, but we belonged to a different realm. HIV politicized people who might otherwise not have joined a political movement. It brought together very different social strata. All of a sudden, people who would never otherwise have met found themselves together. It was very intense.

 

When writing 120 Beats Per Minute, did you use your own memories?

I started by digging through my memories, recalling events and debates, before doing research to check certain facts. That said, the movie is pure fiction – I created a mixture of past truth and invention.

 

But the emotion of a cer tain phase in your life comes through.

For me the film is Proustian. I filmed my memories. I was very moved to see boys and girls who were too young to have lived through those times finding something in the movie, the music of the voices, a certain humour, a certain disingenuousness… Act Up wasn’t like parliament, or the Roman Republic, or the Revolutionary Assembly, it was a debate which, emotionally, was located elsewhere.

 

How did you work out the structure of the film, this constant alternating of word and action, ideas and bodies?

To start with I structured it in clusters, between the power of the group’s pronouncements and almost phantasmagorical images that stage the militants in high-impact operations. It was like being backstage with a theatre troop. This troop took for a stage those rather theatrical places that are institutions – lecture halls, pharmaceutical laboratories, primary and secondary schools – and imposed on others its way of acting, its way of seeing the world Céline Nieszawer through the prism of AIDS. I wanted to capture this bursting out before showing how, before long, one of the characters could no longer continue playing the game of representing his own illness: he became so synchronized with it that he could no longer stand the disparity.

 

 

The debates among Act Up members are filmed with enormous intensity.

During the shoot that was what moved me the most – even if I protected myself at other times. It’s because what happened back then was happening again between the actors. Lots of young gays who took part in the film discovered this particular bit of history, and it was a shock for them. I don’t think it’s over yet between gays and AIDS. It isn’t over for anyone, even if new generations have a different relationship to the disease, to sex and to drugs. Right from when we started rehearsing, I made it clear to the actors that this wasn’t the kind of shoot where they’d be given marks on the floor. The text had to be respected – with a bit of room for improvisation nonetheless – but they would be free to move as they saw fit in takes that would last 15 minutes… There was a feeling of jubilation. Exactly the same feeling I had when I joined Act Up. We were dealing with something extremely tough, but there was a joy in being together. This joy is present in the film, the joy of speech that takes on meaning. The illness is there under the surface. That’s why, in one of the early scenes, the news of a death is announced, everyone having remarked that the guy in question hadn’t been showing up to meetings for quite a while. That’s how it was. The jubilation was always overshadowed by a black cloud.

 

A whole generation lost its insouciance with AIDS. Our sexuality has never been the same.

I’m very upset that AIDS came on the scene when I was 20. There was an extraordinary bodily freedom before HIV. It totally darkened my youth. I’ll never get over it.

 

“There was a taboo I wanted to break in order to allow myself to tell my own story. I felt I was totally justified in allowing myself that latitude.”

 

The movie captures the urgency of the times, the melancholy, and the way that desire became both necessary and potentially dangerous. How did you bring this energy to the film?

I tried to show the vitalism, to aim for luminosity and brilliance, to describe the strange way people react in very difficult situations. It was really a very special time where some were thinking about what to do with their corpses. There were some improbable ideas, quite possibly illegal, such as leaving the coffin in front of the Élysée! When people expressed those wishes, it was like fiction: they couldn’t quite believe in the certainty of their own death. There was a disparity that came into play with respect to fear, pain and anguish. It was the theatricality that made the present bearable.

 

In the context of French cinema, your movie seems very different. Where do you position yourself on the French scene?

A number of years ago I decided I would just do what I wanted, it’s as simple as that. So I follow my desires. At one point I wanted to adapt Victor Hugo’s L’homme qui rit, but it turned out it had recently been filmed. With Hugo, there’s a transgression, he always goes over the top, allowing himself the most improbable digressions. It was with that freedom in mind that I made 120 Beats Per Minute – the freedom to make fiction using recent history. American cinema has no problem doing that, 19th-century literature enjoyed that freedom, so why shouldn’t we? There was a taboo I wanted to break in order to allow myself to tell my own story. I felt I was totally justified in allowing myself that latitude, the liberty to do exactly what I wanted.

 

120 Beats Per Minute, by Robin Campillo, out on 23 August.

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