1992 poster from Act Up Paris announcing a protest.
Hey John, how’s the Covid-19 social distancing going?
Not bad. I’m reading Albert Camus’s La Peste (The Plague) and watching films about viruses and their effects on society.
Films about viruses? Which virus?
HIV. And this is a French film directed by Robin Campillo and released in 2017.
So, what’s it about?
It’s set in the early 1990s in Paris, and portrays the activities of Act Up Paris, the group that was trying to raise awareness of AIDS and fighting for quicker approvals of drugs that might help save lives.
Sounds a lot like The Normal Heart or How to Survive a Plague, except French.
Not really. Unlike the latter, it’s not a documentary. And unlike the former, which is pretty clearly based on some very specific real-life events and individuals, this film is mostly fictional—although definitely based on the facts and the spirit of Act Up Paris’s activities. In other words, there’s nothing dryly factual and historical about this film.
Would you recommend it?
Enthusiastically! This is a wonderful film. What so impressed me is how it finds a balance between portraying the activities of the group (protest, pressure and consciousness-raising actions, for the most part, and very imaginative ones!) and the personal stories of quite a number of the members. And there’s a rhythm to the film that sucks you right in: it focuses more on the actions of the group at the beginning but increasingly narrows in on a few individuals as it goes on, and you understand that what is so remarkable about this situation is that the protesters—who earlier in the film seemed like any other politically engaged, passionate, angry, beautiful, energetic, idealistic young people—are literally fighting for their lives.
And it’s all so believable. These characters behave like queer people we know and love. The scenes of gay love and attraction are among the best I’ve seen in any film. (NB: Fabulous sex scenes. Fab-u-lous.) And it’s important to note that the film finds humour in the exchanges between the quick-witted Act Up members, so it’s not entirely grim by any means.
This is a film to watch, and watch again, and then again.
Two. A subtle, small-scale, unassuming, heartbreaking, human gem. And a reminder that, scary though Covid-19 is, we've been here before, and faced worse, and we survived.