120 BPM: Filmmaker Robin Campillo talks to Jack Cline

A staggeringly powerful gay dramatic epic, this film was unjustly robbed of an Oscar nomination this year (it’s eligible for Bafta next year). This is a drop-dead gorgeous exploration of AIDS activism in early 1990s Paris. But don’t let that put you off. Filmmaker Robin Campillo (Eastern Boys) frames this as an experiential odyssey, throwing the audience into the full flow of the story, then letting us watch two young men (beautifully played by Argentine actor Nahuel Perez Biscayart and hot newcomer Arnaud Valois) who join Act-Up and fall very deeply in love.

The way the actors play the roles, and the way the filmmaker shoots the scenes, feels freeform and naturalistic, easily shifting between heady political debates, rampaging protests, hard partying and quiet emotion. And as the story continues, the story deepens in a variety of directions, adding layers of unexpected resonance. It’s an extraordinary film that leaves us shaken and stirred.

In an exclusive conversation with Boyz, Campillo spoke about how he was able to keep things real because much of the material comes from his own life. “I did some research,” he says, “but most of it is from my memories. At the time, I was a spectator at Act-up meetings, and I just captured details every week for three years. So now I wanted the audience to experience it themselves.”

He feels that the secret to the film’s success is the chemistry between Biscayart and Valois, who reveal the story to be a romance rather than a political drama. Casting them was tricky. “You have to see that it’s colourful between them,” Campillo says. “We had a test doing the scene in the bed, because they can feel their skin. And the chemistry was there. I love Arnaud because he’s so handsome! But also he was very flirty with Nahuel, so you could see the connection. After the kiss, I knew.”

He also says he wanted to make sure the sex scenes meant something. “I told them they had to focus on things like what they were telling each other,” Campillo says. “For example, one of them is more in love than the other at the beginning, and the other is protecting himself. So that’s how we created the choreography in the bed. They have a lot of sex in the film, so the chemistry had to be between them, and also between me and them. They became very connected while making the film, and then after the last scene, when they were always together on the bed, it was very hard for them to separate from each other.”

And he says that the film has a lot to say to younger moviegoers. “I didn’t make this film to lecture anyone,” he says quickly, “especially not young gay people who might not care about the epidemic or HIV. But I hope that the film can make them feel stronger. And the most important thing to me is that they feel legitimate in their sexuality, more conscious of themselves. But I have no advice to offer, because I went through the 80s as just a stupid guy who fell in love with everyone in Act-Up. I remember having sex with people I wasn’t attracted to, and I realised that unfortunately when we were already in bed! But there was such charm in the group, it was almost glamorous to be part of it.”

Click this link to see the trailer for 120 BPM

120 BPM is showing this week at BFI Flare ( and opens in cinemas on Friday 6 April. 

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