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An anthological example of attentive students surpassing their teacher, Eros, a collection of three short films about sex and love, matches grand ennui master Michelangelo Antonioni with fawning admirers Steven Soderbergh and Wong Kar-wai. Given such compilations’ general tendency for unevenness, the alternately atrocious, middling, and stunning results are hardly surprising, but what’s disheartening is the sight of the once-great Italian existentialist’s plummet into pretentious, nonsensical meandering. Granted, Antonioni’s elliptical, spatially disconnected films always walked the fine line between artful world-weariness and infuriating wearisomeness, and such problems have only been compounded by the past three decades’ trend toward a spectacle-driven cinema in which viewer passivity is championed over active participation. Yet there’s no getting around the sheer awfulness of The Dangerous Thread of Things, a short in which naked brunette doppelgangers (Regina Nemni and Luisa Ranieri) attract and repulse a moronic Italian gentleman (Christopher Buchholz) to the tune of embarrassing ambient music filled with breathy female voices counting to one hundred.

That Antonioni’s film has something to do with sexual desire is clear from the plethora of buxom beauties in the buff (masturbating, screwing, sunbathing, and frolicking in the sand) who are gazed at with drooling intensity by the director’s depressingly inexpressive camera. However, this turgid people-wandering-around-barren-landscapes scenario plays out like a parody of the filmmaker’s mesmerizing classics, with ponderous dialogue—“I remember clouds, clouds, clouds,” says one woman, perhaps in reference to the filmmaker’s last debacle Behind the Clouds—expansive vistas brimming with symbolic clutter (such as a remote pond populated by singing sirens), and a feeble narrative unable to compensate for the dearth of striking imagery that used to be this maestro’s hallmark. Concluding with eerily similar nude woman (two halves of the same whole, presumably) staring at each other on the beach, The Dangerous Thread of Things seems to argue that in every man’s heart, the miniscule distance separating excitement and aggravation is no greater than the difference between artificially enhanced and natural breasts.

Preceding this highfalutin’ fiasco is a comedic jaunt by Soderbergh in which the American director ambitiously tries to enliven the mannered proceedings with some jittery hilarity. In production notes, Soderbergh’s explanation for contributing to Eros is that “I wanted my name on a poster with Michelangelo Antonioni.” His 1955-set Equilibrium, however, is more in the vein of his own mind-bending Schizopolis than L’Avventura or The Passenger. A monochromatic noir-inflected tale of an ad exec (Robert Downey Jr.) telling his shrink (Alan Arkin) about a recurring dream involving a mysterious woman in blue, Soderbergh’s short is a manic, partially effective rumination on the obsessive qualities of fantasy, and exhibits an off-the-cuff energy and experimental gusto that’s been absent in his star-gazing Ocean’s Eleven capers. In Downey, Soderbergh finds a rubbery wordsmith with a gift for humorously glib gab, and Arkin’s calm, straight-faced deceptions are a perfect complement to his co-star’s high-wire performance. The problem, unfortunately, is one of laughs—there just aren’t enough, a shortcoming compounded by Soderbergh’s overly self-conscious stab at noir shadowiness and a gimmicky narrative that annoyingly twists back on itself in “was it all a dream?” fashion.

Rounding out the trilogy is Wong Kar-wai’s opening piece The Hand, an exquisitely rendered depiction of suppressed passion about the unconsummated relationship between high-class prostitute Ms. Hua (the gorgeous Gong Li) and inexperienced tailor’s apprentice Zhang (a reserved Chang Chen). Wong’s gently swaying camera (fixated on its lovelorn subject’s hands and bodies) and well-timed use of slow-motion create an atmosphere of near-unbearable longing in which the space between the unlikely would-be lovers is charged with both amorous electricity and danger (SARS being the unseen menace). A heart-racing introductory act of physical gratification acts as the catalyst for Zhang’s obsession with the gorgeous call girl, and a later scene in which the tailor—by now intimately familiar with the shape and curve of his client’s torso—takes Miss Hua’s measurements simply by caressing her shoulders and waist is a breathtaking portrait of aching romantic tension. Admittedly, The Hand’s heat—generated from its sparse dialogue, restrained physicality, and Christopher Doyle’s sumptuous cinematography—is faithfully replicated from the director’s hypnotic In the Mood for Love. But alongside its limp companion pieces, Wong’s arousing (if somewhat redundant) effort proves itself Eros’s only segment with an intimate knowledge of its titular concept.

Warner Independent Pictures
104 min
Michelangelo Antonioni, Steven Soderbergh, Wong Kar-wai
Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, Steven Soderbergh, Wong Kar-wai
Gong Li, Chang Chen, Robert Downey Jr., Alan Arkin, Christopher Buchholz, Regina Nemni, Luisa Ranieri