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Eros   B-

Warner Independent Pictures

Year Released: 2004 (USA: 2005)
MPAA Rating: R

"The Hand"   B+
Director: Wong Kar-Wai
Writer: Wong Kar-Wai
Cast: Gong Li, Chang Chen.

"Equilibrium"   C
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Alan Arkin, Ele Keats.

"The Dangerous Thread of Things"   B-
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Writers: Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra
Cast: Christopher Buchholz, Regina Nemni, Luisa Ranieri.

Review by Rob Vaux

Anthologies are tricky business. To gather the visions of disparate filmmakers into a single thematic whole takes far more bravery and commitment than a feature helmed by a lone director. It becomes especially perilous when one of the filmmakers is the legendary Michelangelo Antonioni and the others are acknowledged disciples of his work. Eros, a three-part exploration of the carnal links between men and women, sets out to pay homage to the Italian master while including a piece of his own in the process. It's an uneasy mixture, as the two younger filmmakers (Wong Kar-Wai and Steven Soderbergh) approach their assignments with much more vibrancy than Antonioni does his. Is it fitting to see the torch passed to a newer generation? Or does the act of overshadowing a filmmaker at the end of his life usurp the very purpose for which this exercise is intended? Eros is haunted by questions like these, drawing us away from the images on-screen and into the space behind the camera.

In Wong's case, at least, he comes dangerously close to trumping the entire affair. His "The Hand" (the piece that starts the film) is a subtly powerful meditation on desire and longing, setting a pace that the other two directors never match. In terms of dramatic structure, it's the most organized and straightforward, telling the tale of a successful tailor (Chang Chen) who pines for a beautiful call girl (Gong Li) on his list of customers. Shot in opaque tones of blue and gray, it frames the relations between the two in unspoken intimacy. The tailor's hands know every inch of her flesh; every curve and blemish has been measured precisely, even though their connection is supposedly only professional. Her lovers and patrons come and go, growing scarcer as the years pass by, but the devotion -- and eroticized longing -- of this quiet little man becomes the silent redemption of her life. Wong invests the story with deep emotional reservoirs, keying in to both the alienation of his central characters and the irresistible pull that binds them both together. The results are sublime.

Sadly, once "The Hand" ends, the film has nowhere to go but down. Soderbergh's piece, "Equilibrium," provides some variety by opting for a lighter comic tone, but feels desperately at sea in the wake of its predecessor. Shot in a brisk noirish black and white, it recounts the psychological woes of a 1950s adman (Robert Downey Jr.) struggling with the ramifications of an intensely erotic dream. Soderbergh establishes a nice rapport between Downey and Alan Arkin, who plays his shrink, but the attempt to create an atmosphere of bemused enigma feels more fumbling than compelling. It's a joke without a punch line, filling the time with semi-clever dialogue that meanders through a sparse 26 minutes. Soderbergh reduces to irrelevance the sense of unfulfilled need that the material is presumably intended to evoke, leaving the audience frustrated rather than intrigued. Downey and Arkin are well-suited to the arch tone, but after the near-brilliance of Wong's sequence, this one feels like an unbecoming fall to earth.

Between those two extremes is the film's finale: Antonioni's "The Dangerous Thread of Things." Considering the director's reputation, and the fact that he was in his 90s when filming began, it's impossible to gauge the piece on its merits alone. The wistful, almost narrative-free portrayal of a disintegrating couple (Christopher Buchholz and Regina Nemni) and the woman who comes between them (Luisa Ranieri) has all of the trademarks of Antonioni's earlier works. The sense of alienation and regret is there, as well as more technical elements like the long, gorgeously flowing camera shots and the sight of human bodies framed by an impossibly beautiful landscape. As evocative as it is, however, it can't help but feel like a sketch of his earlier work, a nostalgic look back that reminds us less of its own power than the slow diminishing of a brilliant cinematic light. It simply doesn't linger in the mind with the strength of Wong's piece, forcing it to compete for attention with a sequence supposedly trying to complement it. Taken by itself, all it can do is point to the past -- a fading coda of a career in its final stages.

That Antonioni can continue to make films at his age is remarkable; perhaps it asks too much, then, to compare his brief rumination here to the works of his prime. The remainder of Eros clings to his closing piece like one of its signature lovers, alternating between adulation and unintentional dismissal. Cinephiles will appreciate the richness on display, and the film remains a fascinating study, though one not entirely sure of itself. Is it a referendum on Antonioni? Or a true collaboration of which he is merely a single part? Eros leaves plenty of similarly shaky questions in its wake, nagging at its finer elements and diminishing its net effect. It works best in the abstract: a haunting collection of notes that can't -- and maybe shouldn't -- be tied together.

Review published 04.08.2005.

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