Since bursting onto the international scene with City Of God, Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles has received untold goodwill from the global critical community. His English-language debut, 2005’s liberal guilt epic The Constant Gardener, received just as many award nominations as his Brazilian breakthrough, and also netted a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Rachel Weisz in the process.
Indeed, the legacy of these two peaks has proven so long-standing, that the box office failure Blindness has been all but forgotten, and his latest film, 360, takes pride of place as the opener for this year’s London Film Festival. Heralded as the new work from an international artist, the film bears more than a passing resemblance to the work of an uninspired hack.
Ostensibly influenced by La Ronde, a play which attempts to survey the sexual and moral aspects of society through a number of encounters between various characters, 360 takes the viewer from Vienna to Denver, via London and Paris, as it weaves together numerous narrative snapshots concerned with love, life and – sigh – the human condition.
While this approach is in one sense ambitious, tackling universal themes by exploring small moments that have major consequences, it is also insultingly shallow, as Peter Morgan’s script moves from one instance to another, giving only rudimentary depth to each sequence, and merely focusing on how the characters fit together in the film’s smug over-arching structure.
We begin with a Slovakian girl posing for a sleazy German photographer, and soon find out that she is auditioning for his ring of high-class prostitutes, with the hope of making her fortune by selling her body. Her first john is a British businessman (Jude Law), far from home and in a rough patch with his marriage. His wife (Rachel Weisz), it turns out, is having an affair with a Brazilian fashion photographer, whose girlfriend discovers his infidelity, and promptly leaves him.
Boarding a plane for America, she starts chatting with an older gentleman (Anthony Hopkins), who is searching for his lost daughter. On and on, and back and forth, the threads rise and fall and interlock, like unfinished sketches for forgotten features, or an awkwardly compressed television miniseries, where structure is prized over development.
As much as the film tries to make it clear that it is concerned with circles, closed loops and the cyclical nature of human existence, the plot plods ever forward, moving linearly through its half-formed fragments. This, unfortunately, means that the few moments of promise whip by. Good performances from Law and Weisz are squandered, with barely half a dozen scenes between them, and a stand-out turn from Anthony Hopkins, in good-natured, chatty form, really deserves more than a few dialogue sequences and one admittedly stunning monologue.
Elsewhere, the most thematically interesting plot strands – one concerning a Muslim in conflict with his lust for a married woman, another about a rehabilitated sex offender’s first experience of public life after years in prison – are unconvincing, as they’re stapled together with their neighbouring storylines. Whether this is more of a misstep on Morgan’s part or that of the director, it’s not easy to tell. For while it’s true that the storytelling finesse that elevated The Queen and Frost/Nixon above dramatic dreariness is completely missing here, Meirelles lacks the style and energy to make the material sing – too often relying on split-screens and off-beat wipes to keep the narrative flowing.
Perhaps the film is just too satisfied with its central gimmick. However, throwing various plotlines together, with key concepts or themes acting as cement, is not unique to 360. At its best, this conceit gives us films like Robert Altman’s vast ensemble masterworks Nashville and Short Cuts or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. At its worst, it produces flicks which use their broad-stroke topics to cover up threadbare narratives, such as Babel or Crash. 360 fits comfortably in the latter category, by pretentiously spewing pronouncements while forsaking its stories and characters.
That, or it’s like an indulgent, sentimental and entirely humourless Love Actually – which is a strange triumph in its own right.