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Eros

An uneven threesome that leaves much to be desired

This uneven yet visually pleasing anthology delivers a trio of short films by Wong Kar-wai, Steven Soderbergh, and Michelangelo Antonioni, stitched together by an expressive and mood-setting series of illustrations by Italian artist Lorenzo Mattotti. The whole package is then set to the mellifluous song "Michelangelo Antonioni" sung in Italian by the Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso.

The project was initiated by Antonioni's long-time producing partner, Stephane Tchal Gadjieff, who had the idea to invite two established young filmmakers and self-confessed Antonioni devotees to contribute an erotic segment of their choice to an omnibus film that pays tribute to the Italian maestro and his life-long obsessions with alienation, eros, and untamable women. Surely Wong and Soderbergh (who replaced Pedro Almodovar when he had to opt out due to scheduling conflicts) must have been thrilled when they were invited to share the same screen space with Antonioni. Alas, only Wong rose to the occasion, creating a small erotic masterpiece that not only towers above Soderbergh's muddled comedic jaunt but also outshines the purposefully abstract and dissonant contribution of his cinematic mentor.

Wong's opening "The Hand" is an achingly haunting tale about longing and unrequited love. Set in 1960s Hong Kong, the plot revolves around the inexperienced yet accommodating tailor's apprentice Zhang (Cheng Chan), who falls in love with an unattainable courtesan, Miss Hua (Gong Li) for whom he lovingly crafts the spectacular dresses she wears for other men. When her fortunes drift away, along with the curves of her body, and she becomes deathly ill, Zhang pays her rent and looks after her, never expecting to be repaid in kind for his devotion.

Beautifully captured by Wong's inimitable cinematographer, Christopher Lloyd, and gently scored by late Rainer Werner Fassbinder's long-time collaborator and composer Peer Raben, Wong's erotically charged act would be hard to follow for anyone, but Soderbergh's contribution to the trio plays as if this indy-darling-turned-Hollywood-player didn't even bother trying to fit in.

Soderbergh's noir-inflected "Equilibrium" pits an angst-ridden and stressed '50s ad exec (Robert Downey Jr.), who is tormented by a recurring erotic dream about a woman, against a distracted shrink (Alan Arkin), who prefers to have his patients on the Freudian couch with their backs to him, so he can scope out the neighborhood with his binoculars while his unassuming patients ruminate about their fears and anxieties. The piece does have its entertaining moments, but the laughs are few and far between, creating nothing more than a film that pales in significance next to Wong's breathtakingly stylish opening. Perhaps Soderbergh's ambition is best summarized in his stated goal for making the film: "I wanted my name on a poster with Michelangelo Antonioni."

Rounding out the trio is Antonioni's "The Dangerous Thread of Things," an embarrassingly empty meditation on romantic disenchantment and carnal ennui driven by titillating glimpses of breasts and flesh instead of characters or plot. The film follows a well-to-do couple in their forties, Christopher (Christopher Buchholz) and Chloe (Regina Nemni), who have reached an impasse in their marriage. While Chloe demands an honest break, Christopher hopes to rekindle his passion for life through a fling with a young woman on the coast of Tuscany. The only redeeming quality about this segment is the imagery, artfully framed by Marco Pontecorvo, to create that otherworldly cinematic space that cemented Antonioni's reputation as a visionary filmmaker.

The rules of the omnibus game demand to come out with a strong opening, stuff the weaker parts in the middle, and save the best for last. Eros, however, has it all backwards -- it takes off with a lot of drive, drops all ambitions and goals in the middle, and then loses itself in the inchoate meanderings of an ailing nonagenarian who, sadly, appears to have lost all but his appreciation for the female form. What should have been a tribute to an influential and iconic filmmaker might be remembered as little more than a sullen, self-effacing coda that forcefully reminds us of how much things have changed since the heady days of the sixties.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars