Around the bend
Yet another version of following a revolving chain of sexual indiscretions, is an inept, jet-lagged drama, writes Donald Clarke
WOULD IT BE indulging in oxymoron to describe a film as “grandiosely superficial”? All right then. Let’s plump for “superficially grandiose” instead.
It’s taken a while for Fernando Meirelles’s lumbering variation on Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde to make its way into domestic cinemas. That’s hardly surprising. 360 has, after all, spent the last year being kicked slowly around the globe by the world’s critics and festival attendees. You don’t achieve that feat in an afternoon.
This is one of those meretricious, inter-weaved relationship films – Babel by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Meirelles’s compatriot, is another – that somehow mistakes narrative muddle for depth and geographical promiscuity for scope.
Let’s get the grandiosity out of the
way first. If you set a film in Vienna, Bratislava, London, Paris, Denver and somewhere else I didn’t bother to write down, then you clearly believe you have big stories to tell. To be fair to Meirelles, he refrains from scattering tourist landmarks about the place to identify the relevant cities. This is just as well. Considering the class of acting on display, there is every possibility that some star might have eaten the London Eye whole or chewed the Eiffel Tower into ribbons.
As in Schnitzler’s 112-year-old play, a chain of sexual indiscretions links the various subplots. They are also bound by shared origins in My Big Book of Patronising Movie Clichés. Here is the whey-faced prostitute from Eastern Europe. Look, it’s the Russian gangster with a vulgar taste in cars and accessories. Basing stories around recently released sex offenders once seemed dangerous; it now reeks of a quick route to cheap sensation. Ben Foster appears to prove that point.
The connections kick off with that unfortunate Slovakian sex worker being dispatched to service a john in Vienna. He turns out to be a sleazy British businessman – so sleazy that Jude Law got the part. But before she has a chance to make the connection, business associates from Germany sidetrack him into conversations concerning Estonian economics.
Rachel Weisz, the wandering car mogul’s wife, is having an affair with a younger Brazilian photographer whose own girlfriend leaves for home when she learns the truth. While trapped by snow in Denver (Sorry? On the way from London to Rio?), that character makes friends with Anthony Hopkins’s recovering alcoholic (uncharacteristically, Sir Tony gives the most restrained performance), but decides to slope off for dangerous rumpy pumpy with Foster’s recovering sex pest (she doesn’t know he’s a sometime pervert, but still). And so forth.
If this all strikes you as too hurried to digest, then you’d best not go anywhere near this poorly balanced tasters’ menu of a film. Peter Morgan, writer of The Queen, Frost/Nixon and other stuff that didn’t make you sick, neither establishes a worthwhile superstructure nor makes sense of any individual incident. The moment a character begins to develop a hint of nuance the film hops on a plane and takes us to another destination.
More Love, Actually than Short Cuts, 360 looks like the work of men who, though constantly busy, never get round to doing any of the properly hard work. The script seems to have been written on cue cards – “Muslim Dentist loves Russian nurse” – rather than being hammered into any grown-up format. The characters barely qualify as ciphers.
The film is, as you might expect from this stable, carried off with some technical élan. Adriano Goldman, who shot Meirelles’s City of God, brings a clean beauty to the wintery locations. The music is slick. The actors all look lovely.
360 is, however, an utterly superficial movie ineffectively posing as a work of significance. Yes, “grandiosely superficial” will do quite nicely. THE LIFE OF the artist Ai Weiwei has been characterised by constant revolution. The son of Communist poet Ai Quig, the younger Ai witnessed his father fall from Party favour during the Cultural Revolution, when the family was sent for reeducation in the remote Xinjiang region on the Pakistan border.
In common with directors Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, Ai graduated with Beijing Academy’s Fifth Generation of film-makers. In 1981 he relocated to New York, where he found contemporaries among the No Wave subcultures.
Ai’s work is duly defined by protest. He flips Tiananmen Square the bird in a series of iconic photographs; he spray-paints and smashes ancient Chinese artifacts; he tweets every day about the state of the nation. In China and in the art world, Wi is a rock star, replete with flunkies, apprentices, a fan-base and a young son by a mistress. (This film keeps us waiting to discover what his wife, fellow artist Lu Qing, might make of that particular domestic complication). His studio is the PRC’s answer to Warhol’s factory, a place where the master’s ideas are realised by craftsmen and sculptresses, who liken themselves to assassins.
But Ai’s status, as documentarian Alison Klayman soon discovers, may not be enough to protect him from the authorities he seeks to criticise.
Klayman’s fascinating, crusading picture is a happy accident. The American journalist was shooting Ai’s campaign to collect all the names of children killed in shoddily built schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake just as the project sparked the interest of government agencies.
Friends and family repeatedly acknowledge that Ai is a hooligan and instigator; Ai repeatedly owns that if he does nothing, nothing will change. In the run-up to major exhibits in Munich and London, there’s a palpable sense that things are coming to a head.
This essential, finely honed biographical portrait is jollied along by all the ironies and complexities of modern China. Time and again we see dissidents arrested and sentenced for Orwellian-sounding crimes, but their very existence trumpets change. As Ai’s plight, onscreen at least, comes to a dramatic, unexpected close, there’s an equally unexpected sense of optimism.
Bed & bored: Jude Law and Rachel Weisz ponder their participation in 360