Eros (2005): Antonioni, Wong Kar-wai, Soderbergh–Anthology of Shorts

Despite its title, “Eros” is one of the least erotic films I have seen. This triptych of shorts by three of the world’s most interesting filmmakers, Italian Maestro Michelanagelo Antonioni, American Steven Soderbergh, and Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, demonstrates again that anthology films don’t work. Presumably addressing the hot issue of eroticism, with each taking a distinctive approach to the theme, none of the three shorts is satisfying on any level, stylistically or thematically.

Though not as bad or silly as “Four Rooms,” the 1995 indie anthology, that featured Tarantino, Rodriguez, Alexander Rockwell and Allison Anders, “Eros” is not even interestingly flawed in the way that “New York Stories,” the 1990 trilogy by Coppola, Scorsese, and Woody Allen was.

The sequential order in which the three parts are presented makes things worse, since the first, Wong Kar-wai’s “The Hand,” is by far the best, and the last, Michelangelo’s inaptly titled, “The Dangerous Thread of Things,” the worst. Sandwiched between them is Soderbergh’s “Equilibrium,” a slight, wry, only mildly amusing segment about the peculiar relationship between a psychiatrist and his patient.

“Eros” is meant to pay an homage to Michelangelo, who, at 92, is not only one of the world’s most renowned filmmakers, but also one of the oldest practitioners (along with Manuel de Oliveira). Younger by 50 years, both Soderbergh and Wong Kar-wai claim to have been influenced and inspired by the Italian filmmaker, who has made at least half a dozen masterpieces, including “L’Avventura,” “Eclipse,” “La Notte,” and “Blow-Up.” However, there is very little evidence of that influence on screen.

The most accomplished and exquisite of the three is “The Hand,” except that we have seen this stylized treatment of unrequited love before, in “In the Mood for Love,” and we’ll see it again when “2046,” which premiered in Cannes last year, will hit American screens later this year.

“The Hand” tells the story of a young tailor, Zhang (Chang Chen) and his long-time unrequited love for a beautiful Hong Kong courtesan, Hua (Gong Li). Over the years, Zhang had lovingly crafted the clothes that she wears for other men. Young, shy, and inexperienced, Zhang treats Hua as an unattainable fantasy woman until a fitting session in which Hua begins to use her magical touch on him. Zhang can barely conceal his arousal and the point is made: he will forever remember that first erotic hand touch by a woman. The SARS epidemic is in the background, and in the last scene, Zhang visits the ill and bed-ridden Hua.

Wong chronicles the asymmetric relationship and the adverse paths of his two protagonists: As Hua begins to lose her beauty and health, declining from a high-class courtesan to a streetwalker, Zhang begins to prosper in his career and reach more mature manhood. Wong’s longtime collaborator, the brilliant cinematographer Christopher Doyle gives the piece a gorgeously lush look, with customary attention to the smallest detail of the costumes and dcor.

Set in 1955, Soderbergh’s “Equilibrium” centers on a stressed-out New York advertising yuppie, Nick Penrose (Robert Downey, Jr.), who has been suffering from a series of recurring erotic dreams, in which a beautiful woman (Ele Keats) undresses at his home, takes a bath, and then leaves. During his session with psychiatrist Dr. Pearl (Alan Arkin), he describes his dream of a woman who is familiar to him, but he can’t recall who she is when he wakes up.

The therapy session is offbeat, whimsical, and a bit perverse since clearly Dr. Pearl could not care less about his patient, and his main concern is to place Nick on the couch so that he can be engaged in other activities, such as spying at his neighbors through his window. Most of the talk, including a pointless monologue about alarm clocks, is done by Nick, with Dr. Pearl sitting behind him, amusingly distracted. Nick’s dream may be erotic, but the segment itself is decidedly not.

Shot in a stylized black-and-white (with a color rendition of the dream), “Equilibrium” feels more like a spoof of Americans’ obsession with psychiatry and a sendoff of the codified vocabulary of film noir, which experienced a second peak (the first was in the late 1940) in the mid-1950s, when “Equilibrium” takes place. The problem with Soderbergh’s piece is that, though the shortest of the three, it overstays its welcome. The story is so slender and undernourishedbasically one ideathat it barely has material for 10 minutes.

“Eros” ends most disappointingly with “The Dangerous Thread of Things,” based on a short story Antonioni had written with veteran collaborator Tonino Guerra. At its center is an attractive but bored and boring married couple. Christopher (Christopher Bucholtz) and Chloe (Regina Nemni) constantly argue (over matters and in sentences that don’t make any sense), then separate, with each partner encountering the same beautiful, free-spirited woman (Luisa Ranieri). Reaching an impasse in their communication over dinner, Christopher follows the alluring woman and before long they’re engaged in passionate sex, which is also unsatisfying. In contrast, Chloe takes to nature and is running and spinning on the beach fully nakeduntil she encounters the mysterious woman, who’s also nude. The segment ends with the two women looking at each other.
Go figure!

Unlike the earlier segments, the Antonioni’s sequence comes across as pretentious and, unintentionally (I think), as a parody of all the themes that had preoccupied the master for the entirety of his career: existential angst, alienation, the impossibility of meaningful bond between men and women. I also hope that the English subtitles don’t do justice to the Italian dialogue because they make the couple sound stupid and preposterous.

Visually, “The Dangerous Thread of Things” is also disappointing, with no evidence of Antonioni’s masterly mise-en-scene, framing, and pacing. Antonioni comes across as a dirty old man, lubricating over young and beautiful and naked women. This was also the case of his former film, “Beyond the Clouds,” in which the biggest mystery was how long would it take for each of the film’s stunning women to undress.

The three episodes are unimaginatively linked by illustrator Lorenzo Mattoti’s erotic drawings and by Caetano Veloso’s song, which was inspired by and named after the Italian director.

“Eros” doesn’t even qualify as an exercise in style, since, with the exception of “The Hand,” the other segments don’t convey the idiosyncratic artistry and touch of their respective directors.

The least an anthology like “Eros” can do is to encourage the viewers to contemplate over the ever-lasting issue of desire. However, as a meditation on the libido, the film is a failure too, because it has very little to say about those issues and the little sex onscreen is not particularly seductive. A curio item par excellence, though decidedly not of the “guilty pleasure” kind, “Eros” may not be a much more rewarding experience as a DVD title.

For the record

“The Hand” is 43 minutes and 15 seconds, “Equilibrium,” 26 minutes and 35 seconds; and “The Dangerous Thread of Things” 31 minutes and 46 seconds.