My coverage of this year’s London Film Festival kicks off with the latest movie from Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, whom many of you may know from his outstanding 2002 crime thriller, City Of God, or perhaps his 2005 adaptation of John Le Carré’s The Constant Gardner. Meirelles takes his time choosing the right project, with a three or four year gap quite common between his movies. It is difficult to pin down exactly what he looks for, but common among his best known works are scathing looks at social and international problems – the influence of the favela gangs in City Of God, the West’s use of Africa as a medical testing ground in Constant Gardner – seen through the eyes of vividly depicted central characters.
In that respect, it is easy to see what must have attracted him to 360, Peter Morgan’s script (very loosely inspired by Arthur Schnitzel’s play, La Ronde) about the connections people make in life and love. Like Meirelles, it has an international sensibility, spanning across the globe, and a strong romantic streak behind the central conflicts. Unfortunately, its storytelling is rather too mechanical and contrived to connect on the human level it so desperately aspires to.
The film’s central gimmick is that it offers a multitude of inter-connected stories which eventually all come back to where they started, hence the title. In the Q&A that followed the screening, both Meirelles and Morgan stated their desire to avoid the film coming across as a ‘short film collection’ in a too-perfect circle, meaning that they wanted the structure to appear authentic (unlike Schnitzel’s play, which Morgan said he felt was too ‘Germanic’ in its strictly ordered narrative beats) and connected on a level deeper than random story crossovers.
The harsh truth is that they failed. For a film ostensibly about making connections, there is little substance to the manner in which the characters come across each other or are linked together. For this kind of story to work, it is important that it seems a completely natural occurrence every time two paths cross: here, a character attends a therapy group meeting in America (trying to come to terms with his daughter having gone missing some years before), which just so happens to be attended by another character, who is supposed to be visiting her sister from Paris – except that the sole purpose of the journey is obviously just to put her in that place at that time. Next time we see her, she’s back in Paris, where she needs to be for the next step of her story to progress.
By attempting to make the story ‘circle’ less obvious, Morgan muddied his own thematic waters. Because the linking points between one character’s story and another are so engineered, the fundamental idea underpinning the film – that big realisations tend to come through being open to random encounters, rather than sticking with what we know – is undermined by the encounters not seeming random at all. Big realisations instead come about when a cosmic screenwriter makes them so. Even the film seems to acknowledge how poorly it conveys this idea, choosing to repeatedly sum it up in blunt montages and monologues in the final act.
There is little point in trying to deny a gimmick when it is the lynchpin of how your narrative operates. Despite having never read or seen the play, my suspicion is that Schnitzel’s play came across to Morgan as precisely ordered in terms of how each character crossed another not necessarily because of any innate German-ness, but because it was the best way of telling the story in the manner that the playwright wanted to tell it. Morgan admitted that at least two characters remained in the film for no other reason than he liked them, even if their actual purpose was questionable at best. Keeping the structure to a stricter ‘character A meets character B, who meets character C, who meets character D, etc.’ would have eliminated the myriad loose ends (and discouraged viewer predictions of who will next be linked to who and how, which are all too easy to guess) that crop up as a result of Morgan’s constant hopping between stories and beds, since Morgan said he was compelled to write an story of people linked internationally by sex. In La Ronde, the reasons for sex being the uniting factor was because it was something common among rich and poor in a society divided by class. Given how much the modern world is already connected, in shared cultures and widespread communication, the need for the sexual angle is tenuous at best.
All this results in the film coming across every bit as the short film anthology that Meirelles wanted to avoid. It is pointless to try and judge the film on its big picture, because it is so unclear about what that is. Fortunately, the component parts are, for the most part, adequate. The most engaging story is that of a sex offender who gets lured to a girl’s hotel room when their flight is stranded by bad weather: Ben Foster gives a performance both sympathetic and scary as a man trying desperately to avoid giving into his violent urges, leading to the sort of emotional conflict and tension so lacking elsewhere.
By contrast, the story involving Jude Law and Rachel Weisz is too familiar and has characters existing only to serve the problem, rather than the problem deriving from the nature of the characters. Excepting Foster, the lesser known actors do significantly better work than the headline names, in no small part because it is easier to engage with characters when your first reaction to them is more enigmatic than ‘Oh hey, it’s Jude Law! Doesn’t his hair look strange?’ or ‘I wonder when was the last time was that Anthony Hopkins didn’t sleepwalk through a performance?’
360 is not a dislikeable picture, just one that seems to be constantly working against itself. The soundtrack (selected by Meirelles’ wife) is appropriately varied and funky, the pace kept reasonably brisk, and Meirelles captures just enough of the flavour of each location to make the film feel properly international. (The overuse of the same CGI plane was a lousy decision, though). A shame, then, that no-one involved seemed entirely sure of what they wanted to say – I asked Morgan and Meirelles how difficult it was to unify their visions, and they responded by saying that a lot of the editing was done via email, sending chunks of the film for each another to download and assess. Though their answer was to emphasize their constant contact and discussion, it made a sad kind of sense in relation to how my question was inspired by the film coming across as assembled from disparate parts.
Meirelles and Morgan were warm and generous with their answers – including laughing off one chap who began his question with ‘I thought it was too long, but…’ – but sometimes accidentally hinted that not even they were entirely certain of what they wanted from the finished film. For a story about people connecting, 360‘s biggest struggle was to do precisely that.