finally, a queer film with sex in it and why that’s important
120 BPM is an AIDS drama with scenes of an HIV+ sexual nature.
It’s a banner time for queer cinema but less so for big screen gay sex. Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-winning movie, drew a line in the sand when it came to sexual relations. In Call Me by Your Name, a good time with a piece of fruit was as explicit as it got. On both occasions, sex was conspicuous in its absence.
Other recent queer cinema has been less sex shy. In God’s Own Country the scenes between farmer and hired help on a wild Yorkshire fell were mucky in both senses of the word, but they also developed our understanding of the characters. In Beach Rats, a similar logic applied in contrasting the teenage protagonist’s above-the-boardwalk straight romance and his furtive encounters with older men. Sex wasn’t at a remove from characters’ other experiences. The kind of sex you have, why and with whom informs the rest of your life, and vice versa.
This is especially true in 120 BPM, an AIDS drama that does more than depict the consequences of a sexual encounter. Robin Campillo’s film centres on the Parisian outpost of ACT UP, the early 90s direct action AIDS activism group. It’s an epic account of young advocacy, governmental negligence, corporate greed and social ignorance. Much of the drama plays out in the lecture theatre, where the activists share medical research that might save their lives. They argue over the politics and tactics that they then put into action: spraying big pharma offices with fake blood to gain column inches, interrupting school lessons to hand out sex education pamphlets, spreading their safe sex message at Paris Pride.
The political drama is compelling, but it is the way in which Campillo puts sex into the story that proves most empowering. In between campaigning, the activists Nathan and Sean fall into bed together. Each comes to ACT UP with back stories: Nathan’s ex-boyfriend died from AIDS related illness; Sean is HIV+ from his illicit first sexual experience. These tales tumble out as pillow talk, but Campillo does not skip the sex part. Instead, in two major scenes, one of which takes 12 minutes to unfold, the men have really hot, explicit sex.
When the AIDS crisis unfolded in the late 20th century, sex became the enemy. Media reporting was hysterical, the queer community spooked. Sex became tied up with death, something to hang your gay shame on. Campillo, who wrote and directed BPM and drew from his experience in ACT UP, has said that when the disease first spread in the early 80s, he like many, was so scared by media reports that he did not have sex for the next ten years. Those who were HIV+ and survived were stigmatised by the press, the wider public and within the queer community itself.
Representations on screen reflected that closeting of the HIV+ experience. In the 1993 Oscar-winning courtroom drama Philadelphia sex plays no part in proceedings. When it has been shown in AIDS dramas it’s been depicted before tragedy, as if the audience needs to be led by the hand as to how HIV is transmitted. Once you’re HIV+, the message is that sex is off the agenda. Instead, shame, stigma and the death bed await. Rarely in cinema has sex positivity filtered through -- though in Gregg Arakis’s arresting road trip movie, The Living End, the two HIV+ leads agreed to “fuck everything”, including each other.
120 BPM is not a fuck everything film, so much as a fuck yes to sex positivity. It’s a film about a sexually transmitted disease, so it cannot ignore sex. But Campillo explores the terrain completely naturally. Condoms are put on and off, sperm gets everywhere after a handjob, there’s awkward laughter. And to see a HIV+ man climax on screen, as we do in in the film, is a real moment. Sean’s body is marked and weakened by disease. Death is close. But he is alive. His human desires and needs have not stopped because of AIDS.
Advances in treatment, safe sex messaging and education have revolutionised the lives of queer men since the early 90s. HIV is no longer a death sentence. PrEP, the once a day pill shown to help prevent HIV infection, is a game changer in the safe sex conversation. But this hangover from the AIDS crisis has endured. We are only really beginning to reckon with the ways in which stigmatisation has had an effect on HIV+ queer people and the hang ups the epidemic engendered in the wider gay community. So 120 BPM is a historical record but it is also a rectifier. A reminder that HIV status does not negate you as a person, sexually or otherwise. It’s a film that couldn’t really have been made without tackling sex, but to make explicit the sex lives and desires of the HIV+ is radical and timely. It is queer sex that needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
120 BPM is in cinemas and on demand from 6 April.