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120 BPM: the magical must-see movie about Aids, love and clubbing in Paris

An in-depth conversation with director Robin Campillo about his time in direct action group ACT UP, the melancholy of house music and shooting natural sex scenes

In 1992, Robin Campillo was stood up by a date. Unsure how to rescue the evening, the future filmmaker attended a meeting held by ACT UP, an Aids activist group, in Paris. At the amphitheatre, he encountered a community of gay youngsters, HIV sufferers, and allies. Together, ACT UP would stage protests against pharmaceutical companies, hand out fliers at schools, and dream up outrageous stunts like sticking a condom on the Obelisk. Elsewhere, they would socialise in numbers, party late into the night, and mourn in support when the next of their members met an early end.

120 BPM, as a result, has been on Campillo’s mind for more than two decades. Awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes, the sprawling drama encompasses a wide range of emotions: the giddy highs of fighting for your life, right down to the tragic lows of witnessing your best mate die as a teen. The ensemble – mostly unknowns, except for Adèle Haenel – are raucous, argumentative, and gifted at gallows humour. They include the romantic duo of Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and Nathan (Arnaud Valois); the former is “poz”, the latter is not. At weekly gatherings, ACT UP dissect botched demonstrations (one guy apologises for chucking the fake blood too soon) and passionately debate the best way to instigate results: how effective is a polite, non-violent protest when the person next to you only has a few months left to live?

As for the title, 120 BPM exhilaratingly conveys the euphoria of letting loose with likeminded friends on the dance floor. What’s more, Campillo, who also directed 2004’s They Came Back and 2013’s Eastern Boys, doesn’t tone down the content for a mainstream audience. Instead, the film is proudly queer, featuring multiple sex scenes and the amusing aftermath of a hospital handjob – Nathan, left with Sean’s cum in his palm, has to search the room for tissues. Interestingly, when The Square took home the Palme d’Or, the win was considered controversial; many commenters, including jury president Pedro Almodóvar, believed Campillo deserved the top prize.

Basically, we love 120 BPM and insist you go see it. Ahead of its release on Friday, here’s our in-depth discussion with Campillo about his memories of ACT UP in the 90s, shooting natural sex scenes, and the pulsating anguish of house music.

To begin with, can you talk about when you first joined ACT UP?

Robin Campillo: I went to ACT UP in 1992. It was 10 years after the start of the epidemic. I was really afraid, because a lot of newspapers were saying a lot of gay men were going to die. It was like a curse. At the same time, there was no communication from the government towards the gay community or heavy drug users or prostitutes. So I was really angry, because I lost a lot of friends and lovers.

In 1991, just before I got into the group, I was editing TV news. I saw, on TV, Didier Lestrade, who was a co-founder of ACT UP Paris, and he was talking about the Aids community. The word “community” in France is a forbidden word. We don’t have minorities. We don’t have communities. We are just one.

He said the Aids community is composed of people who are touched by the disease, their families, the doctors who are working for them. These people were living with an epidemic, and the rest of society didn’t seem to care. For me, after the 10 years I’d lived, it was so meaningful. It was so important that I went to the group because I’d heard this thing.

So I joined in 1992. It was a little bit random, because I had a sex date with a guy who didn’t show up (laughs). And because it was not so far from the meeting point, I went, and it was amazing, because it was like in the film: you have this guy who introduces you and says, “Welcome to ACT UP.”

The opening of the film really conveys the thrill you must have experienced when joining ACT UP.

Robin Campillo: Yeah, exactly. Because I wanted people to be lost like I was when I came to ACT UP. It was a nice, weird feeling, because the first meeting I went to, there was such jubilation. I was even thinking, “Where is the disease?”

Of course, people died every month. But I think I reinvented myself by joining this group because it was so strong. I was a shy boy in my own life. I didn’t know many gays, because I was so afraid of this disease that I cut my relationship with the gay community. So I was really sad.

To join this group, it helped me to reinvent myself. That’s why I wanted to do a film about this moment, instead of talking about the loneliness. I wanted to talk about the fact that we were inventing things. We were trying to create new happenings, create new posters. We were very creative.

Was “Aids is me, Aids is you, Aids is us” a real, terrible slogan that someone proposed?

Robin Campillo: Yes! The characters are not related to real people, but this woman and her son, they were real. The first meeting I went to, she said that. Didier Lestrade said to her, “Oh no, please…” (laughs) And that was so funny. Because this woman was incredible. She came with her son. He was 14 years old. She came to this very gay group, and she was so funny, and she was so happy to be with us. The guy is still alive. He saw the film. That was amazing, to meet him.

When I saw your first film, They Came Back, I thought it was just a zombie film. But 120 BPM made me realise how personal that film actually was. Is there a reason you didn’t make 120 BPM in 2004?

Robin Campillo: It isn’t obvious. They Came Back is related to the 80s. The way I lived with the epidemic, I was so alone. I felt like a zombie, like I was desynchronised from my own life. I wanted to make a film about this feeling of being haunted by ghosts, or ghosts to come, because I knew some of my friends were going to die. I was sure of that.

Like Nathan in the film, I was so afraid of the epidemic that I stopped having sex with men and having relationships. I was protecting myself. I was crazy. But the last guy I had sex with, in the morning he read to me a phrase from a book by Marguerite Duras, and the sentence was: “When you left, came your absence.”

I was haunted by this sentence for many years. The guy I had sex with, died five years after. That was such a surreal period of my life. I was not able to confront the subject of the epidemic when I did They Came Back. So I did a genre film about being paralysed by fear.

“We were so good at clubbing and having fun and having sex and taking drugs. We were so lively. It wasn’t fair. It’s not like it was relief. It was what we wanted to be” – Robin Campillo

There’s a lot of humour in the movie. Is it because you lived through it that you can see the funnier aspects? If an outsider was commissioned to make a similar film, it would probably have a lot more crying at the climactic moments.

Robin Campillo: There was a lot of humour in ACT UP. We were not serious. We felt very legitimate in our struggle. We felt we were right to do it, and we didn’t have any doubts about it. But at the same time, we knew we were doing things that were a little bit dodgy and a little bit stupid. We were not fooling ourselves.

For the audience, it’s good to have humour throughout the film, because the film is very hard sometimes. But at the same time, when we were living all of this, we needed to just be a little bit relieved. Because we were mostly gay guys, we were mocking ourselves very often. That was important to show.

Is that also where the clubbing comes in, to relieve that stress?

Robin Campillo: Yes, but it was also our life. One of the reasons we wanted to live and to survive was not to have a job or to have a normal life; it was because we were so good at clubbing and having fun and having sex and taking drugs. We were so lively. It wasn’t fair. It’s not like it was relief. It was what we wanted to be.

That’s why I shot the clubs and dancing in the film that way. The hands you see, in the dark, it’s like a cinema room. You’re in the dark, you have some kind of strange light. When you see them at the last club, for me they’re like light filaments that appear and disappear. At some point, they are going to be stars who fade away indefinitely.

120 BPM also builds upon the way you use music in Eastern Boys. I believe the Jimmy Somerville track was particularly important?

Robin Campillo: The house music was the background of the epidemic. It was party music, fun music, happy music. But it was haunted by anguish. It was melancholic. I found this composer, Arnaud Rebotini, who did my previous film too. He’s a DJ, so he knows exactly what the music was in 91, in 92. He has the instruments of every period. That’s why when I said we lived for dancing, this music was very important.

With Jimmy Somerville, it was “Bronski Beat”. I wanted Jimmy Somerville to appear in the film, because he was close to the first president of ACT UP Paris, and he did a concert for ACT UP Paris in 92, I think. People during the concert started to cry when he did this song, because it was so powerful.

I wanted him to appear in the film, doing this concert, and he refused, which I understand very well. But he gave us the multitrack tape, and that was fun, because I could have, at the end, only his voice, with no reverberation – like he’s here with us. And I love this idea of making him appear in this film, when Nathan is so alone, on his own, and is disconnected from the rest of the group.

It’s a beautiful image when the river turns red. Was that something you’d been thinking about in the years preceding the film?

Robin Campillo: In fact, it was a real fantasy of ACT UP Paris. We wanted to put a condom on the Obelisk, and we did it. The other thing was to get the river red, and it was not possible (laughs). So I wanted to realise it for this film, to do an action we couldn’t do. The river in Paris is very central. We wanted the epidemic to become the centre of Paris.

There’s a moment when Sean and Nathan kiss in public to deliberately piss off a homophobic stranger. In a way, is it also important to include multiple gay sex scenes in the film?

Robin Campillo: In a film about a sexually transmitted disease, you have to talk about sex. But to be honest, I like to film sex. I don’t like to film it just like a performance. I like to film it like a normal scene. It’s not only sex that I show – I show the fact that you put on a condom, and after you come, you have to get the condom out.

“I like to film sex. I don’t like to film it just like a performance. I like to film it like a normal scene” - Robin Campillo

And with the hospital handjob, he’s got sperm all over his hands.

Robin Campillo: (laughs) Yes, it’s the same thing, at the end of the film, when someone dies. There are so many films where someone dies and you go to the funeral right after, because of the editing. But when someone dies, the body stays there for a long time. It gets left like this.

That’s like the sex scene. Afterwards, you have sperm on you, and you have to wipe it off. I like the idea of showing all of this. I don’t do it to shock people. I do it because it’s natural. It’s something that happens. Of course, when you do a film, you try to hide all of these details that are a little bit embarrassing. But I find them very interesting, because it’s the way we are, and because I’m talking about Aids these details are very important.

The internet has since changed, to a certain extent, how people protest. Is it still possible to get 200 activists in a room to discuss matters once a week?

Robin Campillo: No, it’s not possible. Politically, the internet makes us ghosts. We don’t exist. We just “like” things. And for governments, that’s great. Because we can be radical on Facebook and Twitter, but it doesn’t have any effect.

For the French government, people are so radical on Facebook but you have no one on the streets – never. For instance, France was known for big demonstrations, but that doesn’t exist anymore. With ACT UP, that was different. Before confronting the government, before confronting the pharmaceutical groups, we had to confront each other in this amphitheatre. And for me, this amphitheatre in the film is like a brain. It’s dreaming the political actions and the political discourse.

It’s a very specific moment, this moment of ACT UP, because it’s before the internet. We had to meet in the flesh. Because people were touched with their body, because of the disease, it was so much easier. We are now in a very weak political moment. Very weak.

Do you want young people to be inspired by your film?

Robin Campillo: To be honest, I try not to lecture people.

Even with Trump and what’s going on in France at the moment?

Robin Campillo: You know, Macron is not like Trump, but he’s not too far. He looks like he’s a cool guy. He’s not at all. He really tried to change the rules. In France, we’re under an Emergency State for three or four years because of the terrorist attack. So all the time, we have the army in the streets in Paris. So we have a big level of security. We are not free.

Macron is trying to put new laws against demonstrations in the streets, because of the terrorist attacks. So you can’t do anything. You can be arrested. In France, now, it’s very dangerous to do a demonstration, and that changes a lot of things.

When you’re talking about Trump in the US, I have the feeling that people are saying a lot of things against him on the internet, and you have comedy shows on TV that are mocking him. But it has no effect on him. He can go on as he wants, because he has the power. And if people aren’t in the streets, nothing’s going to happen.

“I don’t see a lot of very good debate on the internet. I see people insulting each other because you’re not radical enough, or this kind of thing. It’s boring, really” – Robin Campillo

In France, it’s the same thing. People tell me they’re very rude at the debates at the amphitheatre in the film, but I think it’s much more violent on the internet right now. People are very aggressive to each other, with a lot of insults. I don’t see a lot of very good debate on the internet. I see people insulting each other because you’re not radical enough, or this kind of thing. It’s boring, really.

I must say, I did a lot of screenings in France – not only in Paris, but all over France – with a Q&A. The film touches very young people, people under 25. They didn’t know that a political group like this could happen. For them, it’s like science-fiction. And they loved it.

120 BPM opens in UK cinemas on April 6