Robin Campillo: “The AIDS epidemic took me away from cinema”

Meeting with the director of 120 beats per minute, to be seen again this evening on France 4 and/or in replay on France.TV.

The 2024 Cannes Film Festival has started, and the channels are getting in tune with special programming. Particularly on the side of France Televisionswhich is once again a partner of this edition.

Tonight, place 120 Beats per minute on channel 14, the drama of Robin Campillo, which enjoyed great success in 2017 on the Croisette. To wait, we are republishing our interview with the French filmmaker, originally published in issue 478 of First (July-August 2017).

Parsimonious director best known as a collaborator of Laurent Cantet, creator “by proxy” of the series Ghosts, Robin Campillo is the eternal outsider of French cinema. The Cannes triumph of 120 beats per minute, and his three Césars (best film, best editing and best screenplay), suddenly puts him in the light, at the center of attention, now watched, celebrated, desired. But does he really want it?

120 beats per minute is the tempo of house music, the preferred soundtrack of Act Up activists in the 90s and, indirectly, of Robin Campillo's film which romanticizes their journey. A particularly high (musical, cardiac) rhythm.

Three films in two decades, that's the pace at which Robin Campillo, an illustrious unknown in French cinema, entered his career late and favored the truant paths. A particularly slow (cinematic) pace. So you can like to live fast and work slowly. And thus find yourself, at 54 years old, returning from a Cannes Festival which carried you in triumph (Grand Prix, standing ovation, festival-goers in tears, “Palm of the heart” awarded by the unanimous press, the president of the jury Pedro Almodovar upset at a press conference), to wait for the release of his film with the apprehension of a beginner (“ Maybe we should have released just after Cannes? But that’s okay, August, it’s not that far away… “).

Robin Campillo is worried, impatient, laughing (“ My previous film, Eastern Boys, had good reviews but no one went to see it. This one will perhaps make entries. Finally ! “), is happy to no longer be on the Croisette (” after a while i struggle with all this exposure “) and quickly found his outsider reflexes, never as comfortable as on the second step of the podium. “ Having come within a hair's breadth of winning the Palme d'Or? I live it well. It protects me, ultimately, a price which is not nothing but which is not the supreme prize either “.

The taste of Others
We would have given him the Palme d'Or. Campillo may only have three lines on his CV in the box “director” (Ghosts in 2004, Eastern Boys in 2013, 120 BPM today), that does not prevent us from seeing his latest film as a sort of magnum opus, a great summarizing work. Its historical scale and emotional power invite it, of course, but we can also instinctively detect in it a sort of digest of its author's themes, a gateway into his world, a perfect key to understanding what guides his life and orients his practice of cinema.

Because with Campillo, yes, there are things to understand, mysteries to clarify and keys to find. The exceptionally parsimonious pace at which he shoots is an enigma, a real one, as is his manifest absence of ego, which led him to spend much of his career in the shadow of Laurent Cantet, for whom he wrote and /or mounted Human ressources, The timetable, Between the walls (his first “almost” Palme d’Or, in 2008), To the south, and we move on. But many of the answers to the questions we ask ourselves are in reality already in 120 BPM : the taste of others, the choice of plural rather than individual epics, the professional life that you put on hold when other winds carry you.

Joining Act Up in 1992, Campillo had acquired a taste for group work ten years earlier, at film school: “ When I was young, I had this academic and somewhat nerdy idea of ​​the demiurgic artist, I thought that films came out of the directors' minds as is. An extremely individualistic attitude. But upon arriving at Idhec (ancestor of Femis), I discover that creation is also linked to friendship, to the collective, to others in general. One of the big interests of this school is that we directed our own films and that we were also technicians on other people's films. So there was the idea that being a filmmaker meant working for cinema, at different levels. And this thing continued later with Laurent. Afterwards, honestly, at one time, it might have annoyed me when someone said to me: “What’s it like to be an editor and move on to directing?” » “To be a screenwriter and move on to directing? » For me, cinema is a subject and I work on this subject. I always had a director's vision, even when I was editing. »

Considering cinema as a collective practice does not, however, explain the immense temporal gap between Campillo's exit from Idhec, in the mid-1980s, and his very first mention in the credits of a film, The Bloodthirstywhich he created for Laurent Cantet in 1997. The explanation is that the AIDS epidemic kept me away from cinema. I entered Act Up, a rather joyful, hyper-liberating activism thing, where a handful of people attacked the invisibility of homosexuality, for example. I love Rohmer and Godard, but there isn't a lot of homosexuality in their films or those of their New Wave contemporaries… It seemed like this disease posed a problem in cinema. Putting a condom in a love scene could kill the scene. There I said to myself – well, I didn't say it to myself straight away because as you will have understood I am very slow: to properly treat the epidemic, we will have to summon very impure things which do not fit into this cinema of the old order. Many of these questions from that time are also found in 120 beats per minute. »

120 beats per minute: The palm of the heart [critique]

Ambiguous career
It will therefore take the friendly impulse of Cantet (“ He helped me get back on my feet “) so that Robin Campillo gives up his food jobs and confronts the cinema (” I thought it was too late, that I had missed the window “). Their first script signed together, The timetable, is a variation on the Romand affair, the story of a man who prefers to lie to those around him and invent the existence of a good employee in all respects rather than get up in the morning to go to work. Thinking about it today, it looks a lot like a self-portrait of Campillo as an activist for idleness. No ?

It’s definitely the Laurent film I’m closest to. I have an unhappy relationship with work, I'm a child of the 70s, I thought when I was younger that it wasn't worth working before the age of 35. In my films I like to show people outside of work. One of my favorite films is Men on Sunday. Just the title says it all… But this concern still ties in with the history of AIDS. Because when triple therapies appeared, the question of patients' return to work arose. Except that for these people who had stopped their careers, campaigned in associations, done something else with their lives and had become precarious, it was complicated to return to a job in, say, a polling institute, to take an example that we find in 120 BPM. I found it disturbing. »

From this “upset relationship” at work will be born a filmmaker's ethic refusing to shoot films on an assembly line, a refusal, very New Wave for once, to become a “professional of the profession”. “ I like having an ambiguous career. Because I can't sit behind my computer and say, “So what am I going to say today?” What's the subject ? » I need the subject to invade me. To make cinema, you have to be haunted by something other than cinema. Carried by something. On AIDS, I spent two years writing a film, Drugly Days, and when I finished the script, I no longer wanted to shoot it. It tired me in advance to stage it. I felt the pressure of the scenario. And don’t force it… There are already a lot of films coming out in France “.

The ghost
The most striking example of Campillo's “ambiguous” career and his changing place on the chessboard of French cinema is undoubtedly Ghosts, his first film, a huge success in 2004, whose poetic-fantastic concept (the dead return among the living to resume their previous lives) will serve as the basis for a Canal series greeted with cheers in 2012. The press it's packed, everyone is watching, Stephen King tweets his enthusiasm, the Americans produce no less than two remakes, Fabrice Gobert (the director of the series) becomes the new hope of young French cinema. And Campillo remains forgotten by history.

Not so forgottenhe puts things into perspective. On the contrary, I believe it helped my career. Because people always pointed out that it was inspired by my film. And suddenly I was congratulated for my concept. Forgetting that there had been Romero before me! And that the dead have been rising from their graves since the dawn of time! (Laughs) I didn't want to be involved in the series, because I couldn't imagine how to break down a fable into episodes, but it's very gratifying to imagine being at the origin of something that so many people take hold. »

And suddenly, everything accelerates… The series makes the headlines at the moment when Campillo, after ten years of reflection, releases his second feature, the impressive Eastern Boys, less locked down than the first, which will despite its failure in theaters become a sort of “darling” in the French arthouse world. “ Many directors discovered it thanks to the Césars box set (a DVD box sent by the Academy to the profession, where all the nominated films are compiled). I think they were seduced by the lyricism of the film, its excessive side, the scenes that drag on. As a result, some people wanted to work with me. » Rebecca Zlotowski (Planetarium), Alice Winocour (Maryland), Pascale Breton (Armorican Suite) come in turn to knock on Robin Campillo's door to call on his services, transforming him into a luxury script-doctor. As a suddenly very busy man…

Today, while 120 beats per minute is looming in theaters, everyone is already asking him what his next film will be. “ It's normal that the question arises. Let a producer ask a director what he's working on. Or wondering if I'm going to go back to editing. I don't know, maybe I'll bring out this science fiction scenario that I had put aside. The problem is that when I write, I very quickly want to listen to music, draw, play video games… I have to let the film come to me. » Still not a cinema professional, then?“Ah! Still not ! But you know, The timetable is a film that I find very sad. And I'm at least happy to have gotten away from that, from this idea that work must necessarily be experienced as a curse. »

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