I wanted my name on a poster with Michelangelo Antonioni.
Omnibus movies inspired by the desire of young filmmakers to appear on the same marquee as their aging idols are risky business. Depending on how you look at it, Eros, a maddeningly uneven triptych about the vagaries of sexual longing, is either a deep curtsy to Michelangelo Antonioni by two major talents who have outstripped him, or a sad homage to a master whose powers sank into decline even before he suffered a stroke in the early 90s. Linked by lovely paintings created by Lorenzo Mattotti and the velvet voice of Caetano Veloso, this collection ranges from the sublime (Wong Kar-wai) to the entertainingly frivolous (Steven Soderbergh) to the sorry (Antonioni), and its best looked at in order of ascending quality.
If you look hard at The Dangerous Thread of Things, a vignette seemingly about the eternal male fantasy of the perfect woman, you might glimpse the pale ghost of a characteristically morose theme of the early, great Antonioni of La Notte, for example, in which Monica Vitti famously declared, Each time I have tried to communicate with someone, love has disappeared. An American man (Christopher Buchholz) and his Italian wife (Regina Nemni) whinge and bicker their way through picturesque Tuscan vistas in late summer. He doesnt seem to notice the small but shapely breasts twinkling out of her diaphanous blouse, yet after a particularly bitter marital quarrel he is distracted by another dark-haired beauty (Luisa Ranieri), whose chief advantage appears to be a bosom comparable to two hot-air balloons and caught by the camera from every available angle. A little later the two women, both naked, strike Isadora Duncan attitudes on a beach. Something, perhaps, is being said here about the elusiveness of love, but what is meant to be elliptical comes off blunt and incoherent. Antonioni has always said that making films is his life, and it is the rare artist who gives in gracefully to old age. His greatest films among them La Notte, Blow-Up, Zabriskie Point and The Passenger will live forever, but unless he wants to be remembered as a dirty old man with a movie camera, this one should be dropped from the résumé.
Soderberghs Equilibrium, a skit that turns on a 1950s New York therapy session between an anxious adman (Robert Downey Jr.) and his inattentive analyst (a very funny Alan Arkin), is saucy fun, handsomely shot in black and white, but feels like one of those eggheaded trifles the director knocks off between Oceans. Coaxed onto the couch so that his shrink can focus on something in a neighboring building with binoculars of ever-increasing size, the married adman riffs on a a tricky situation at work and a recurring dream, shot in deep blues, of an unknown woman bathing and dressing after hes had sex with her. Soderbergh is the least carnal of directors, which worked well for him in sex, lies and videotape, an essay on the constricted libido, and even in the lovely Out of Sight, whose old-fashioned charm was built not on steamy sex, but rather on banter between a hot couple. Theres a funny twist at the end of Equilibrium, but Im not at all sure what this antic piece is doing in a compendium of the erotic.
Wong Kar-wais The Hand, easily the best of the three films, is a darkly romantic urban fairy tale of a humble young tailor, Zhang (Chang Chen), who is summoned to the boudoir of the haughty Miss Hua (Gong Li), a gorgeous courtesan at the peak of her career. In a scene at once kinky and poetic, she casually runs her hand between his legs, brings him to orgasm and orders him to hang on to that feeling so that he can make her beautiful clothes. By most standards this is a novel way to say You had me at hello, but the tailor, now enslaved as her eunuch, plies his trade with fervent diligence, sewing gossamer dresses that shimmer with the intensity of his pent-up desire. We see him hovering about her with pins and scissors while she, barely noticing, talks on the phone, propositioning her wealthy married clientele for dates.
Like all Wong Kar-wais movies, The Hand is a celebration of the inegalitarian tyranny of beauty, the wayward lawlessness of sexual attraction and the many forms of its sublimation. As always he insists on the romantic authenticity of the perverse, and if the fetishism in The Hand recalls the goofy Chungking Express, its wistful sadness and obsession with unrequited love is reminiscent of In the Mood for Love, whose style and ambiance it closely resembles. (Both movies are shot by the legendary Christopher Doyle.) The years pass, and though the tailor never marries, his fortunes rise as those of the imperious Miss Hua slowly decline. Her waistline expands, her clientele contracts, and her voice grows shriller as she tries to hang on to her defecting customers. She moves from the dark, stuffy elegance of her apartment to the dark, stuffy squalor of a cheap hotel, venturing outside only to seek a lower class of johns on the rain-drenched streets. She grows increasingly dependent on Zhang?, who unobtrusively pays her rent and continues to show up, bringing the dresses she can no longer afford, symbols of the beauty that inevitably fades. At last, pale and bedridden, she begs him to let her bring him off one more time. Naturally he agrees, and though theres another reversal just when it seems the mistress has at last become the slave, you can imagine him agreeing again and again and again. In the cinema of Wong Kar-wai, thats amore.
EROS | Directed by WONG KAR-WAI, STEVEN SODERBERGH and MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI | Written by WONG, SODERBERGH and ANTONIONI and TONINO GUERRA | Released by Warner Independent Pictures | At the Nuart
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