What is Eros? Or, less portentously, what is Eros? Popular in the auteur-happy 1960s, the omnibus film (is it even a genre?) huddles directors around a theme (ranging from life in paparazzi-infested Rome to, say, the effects of 9/11) and lets them loose on an all-paid holiday of self-indulgence. Eros presents a collection of three short films centered on the idea of sensuousness, of erotic allure conjured up through images and sounds for the people out there in the dark -- the basis of cinema, that is. Not only the most universal of themes, but also probably the most subjective, which arguably fits the unavoidable unevenness of the anthology film fine; for further proof, simply browse your local porn den. Imagine the dream-team taking off on the concept of celluloid erotica: Josef Von Sternberg, Bernardo Bertolucci, Pedro Almodóvar. (Now imagine the nightmare version: Catherine Breillat, Todd Solondz, Michael Haneke.) Almodóvar, incidentally, was originally slated to contribute a segment before being replaced by Steven Soderbergh, who, along with Wong Kar-Wai, plays fan-boy fawner to presiding divinity Michelangelo Antonioni, grand capo of aching libido.
Keeping up with the theme, the segment order might have mimicked the coital structure (foreplay, main course and, uh, snuggling), but Eros ejaculates prematurely, as it were. Wong's opening dazzler, The Hand, is the film's greatest third, set in the director's 1960s-set Hong Kong -- the narrative is a pocket-sized In the Mood for Love, a young, callow tailor's apprentice (Chang Chen) and his unconsummated passion for courtesan Ms. Hua (Gong Li), cruel and luxuriant upon their first meeting but then aging and ailing. "Remember this feeling," she tells him after unzipping his virginal trousers, and remember it he does, sticking by her side as she sinks to rainy-night hooking and bedside disintegration. Not a frame wasted, the segment is a jewel of chaste torridness, camera modulation (Chris Doyle at the helm), décor, bodies and limbs in movement -- to Wong, the tools for evoking eroticism even as it escapes the grasp of his characters. In one beautiful shot following a screaming bout with a client, Li readjusts her coiffure with the kind of grace that only women in Wong Kar-Wai films have; later on, Chen measures his amour's figure by tenderly caressing her waist and shoulders. For Wong, gestures remain futile physical attempts at capturing the evanescent rapture of Eros -- it's no accident it concludes with the screen's most heartbreaking handjob.
Sex Is Comedy might have been a nifty title for Soderbergh's Equilibrium, if it hadn't already been scooped by Breillat, or if there were much sex or comedy here. Actually, his slender jaunt showcases plenty of the director's egghead drollness, staging a cabaret-anxiety pas de deux with Robert Downey, Jr. whining on the divan while Alan Arkin pantomimes to someone out of the frame. Eroticism? Purely conceptual -- the notion that what excites you bores me. Somewhere in the monochromatic '50s, a jittery adman (Downey) recounts to his increasingly distracted shrink (Arkin) a recurring dream (shot in lush color disfigured by handheld wobbliness) about an unnamed looker materializing in his bedroom. Passably amusing, the flyweight almost-sketch, for all its gimmicky energy (at least more inclusive than the celebrity bash of Ocean's Twelve), begs the question -- What is it doing here, bracketed by statements by these masters? "I wanted my name on a poster with Michelangelo Antonioni," has been Soderbergh answer. Fair enough. What about Master Antonioni, by the way?
The concluding third, The Dangerous Thread of Things, was shot in 2001 by the 89-year-old Italian giant, nearly twenty years after his crippling stroke. Critic after critic has tagged it a senile embarrassment on the level of direct-to-vid soft-core, devoid of insight and coherence. The people tagging it pointless and boring probably never understood the creator of L'Avventura and L'Eclisse in the first place, for this is quintessential Antonioni, a mini-masterpiece to match Wong's. Eros has always been one of the filmmaker's main enigmas, with physical contact (sex above all) a cruel palliative, heightening rather than soothing the notion that people are utterly unconnected (and unconnectable). "How can you pollute the air with your empty words?" -- the first line triggers audience derision, but the chortling dies in the presence of such beauty. A trio of warbling sirens by a waterfall, a wine glass languidly dropped on the floor, the sea reflected on a glassy panel. Yet beauty is never just decorative to Antonioni's abstracting lenses, and his statuary-like protagonists, an imploding couple (Christopher Bucholz and Regina Nemmi) and a fantasy girl (Luisa Ranieri) along a lush coastal resort, remain oppressed by their own outer perfection.
Above all, Eros is a homage to Antonioni, complete with Caetano Veloso mooning rhapsodic over baby-Kama Sutra crayon sketches in between episodes, but the maestro's work is its own tribute. As Wong, Antonioni finds form itself sensuous, and, being with Godard and Warhol one of the most important creators of cinematic form in the past five decades, he locates film's inherent pact to erotica in the way people brush against each other, close yet far away, and in the way the camera can address (and perhaps redeem) the spiritual void by rendering it into tangible feeling. The segment crams the highest amount of naked flesh, beside which the contributions by his grandsonly admirers come off as maidenly, though the insistent nudity, far from signaling an old man's lechery, reveals an old artist's awareness of the vulnerability of the body in housing the spirit, just as the medium exudes fragility in expressing the essence of reality. The beach encounter of the two doppelgangers that curtains the story (and the film) is a typically beautiful Antonioni riddle, unexplained, refusing exact pinpointing as it shifts in the mind. Soderbergh is just bumming a ride, but Wong and Antonioni ravish the senses.
Reviewed April 14, 2005.