3-1/2 stars (out of 4)
"Eros" is a classy triple shot of film erotica from three brilliant writer-directors: Italy's Michelangelo Antonioni, Hong Kong's Wong Kar-wai and the U.S.'s Steven Soderbergh. This justly renowned trio combine for an ambitious original anthology of international sexual tales, and the results are variable, stimulating and quite different in tone and mood.
Wong's "The Hand," set in 1963 and some years afterwards, is the poignant story of a beautiful Hong Kong courtesan (Gong Li), her shy tailor (Chang Chen) and their long but ambiguous relationship as his prestige rises and hers falls. Soderbergh's "Equilibrium" reveals the mysterious sex dreams of a nervous young Manhattan advertising agency man in 1955 as related to his older, blase psychiatrist (two perfect roles for Robert Downey Jr. and Alan Arkin).
Antonioni, in the climactic "The Dangerous Thread of Things"set in the present, though it feels more like the mid-'60sdraws a portrait of marital disintegration and sexual adventure among the upper classes, a sex triangle between an American (Christopher Buchholz), his Italian wife (Regina Nemni) and their neighbor (Luisa Ranieri).
"Eros," which resembles those popular '50s or '60s Italian or French romantic anthology films1962's "Boccacio '70," for examplewas put together by Antonioni's producers for 1995's "Beyond the Clouds." They intended it to showcase his own entry, based, like "Clouds," on tales from his book, "Quel Bowling sul Tevere" ("That Bowling Alley on the Tiber"). Pedro Almodovar, originally one of the other two directors, dropped out. Soderbergh replaced him, and as with Wong, he cited his high regard for Antonioni, 92, as the reason.
Ironically, the Wong and, to a lesser degree, Soderbergh episodes have won most of the early critical praise, while Antonioni's has been widely blasted and even ridiculed. The praise is justified; the attacks are not.
I'd agree that Wong's "Hand" is a little masterpiece: genuinely romantic and quite moving. With the shimmering romanticism he gave "In the Mood for Love," Wong shows us Gong Li's Miss Hua through the eyes of repressed, worshipful tailor Zhang, serving and adoring her even as she slips from her glamorous pedestal, sinking lower and lower into illness and poverty. As Zhang struggles to her keep her illusion intact, the sad, hothouse atmosphere suggests Tennessee Williams and his special mixture of the perverse, the poetic and the deeply melancholy.
"Equilibrium," with its '50s Latin jazz backgrounds by Tito Puente and Chico O'Farrill, hits a lighter key. The actors and Soderbergh excel at the buttoned-down anxiety of Downey's Miltown-era adman, Nick Penrose, flustered by troubles at the office and desperate to discover the woman in his dreams (Ele Keats)and the screw-loose eccentricity of Arkin's comic shrink Dr. Pearl, who makes paper airplanes of case files.
They're both good, but "The Dangerous Thread of Things," which is being treated by some as if it were an old man's stab at a Penthouse story photo-spread, is no disgrace. It's the kind of film Antonioni might have made in the '60s had the censors allowed, with full frontal nudity, sexual encounters, passionate couplings and a climactic nude beach scene. The erotic fear that seeps through "Eclipse" (1962), "Red Desert" (1964) and "Zabriskie Point" (1970) surfaces here. Those movies evoked sexual anxiety without showing much sex. If "Thread" alienates some critics, that may be the reason.
I saw "Eros" at the Toronto Film Festival, where the critical hostility first seemed to surface. There was a reason: "Threads" was then in very awkward, seemingly dubbed English. Supposedly written by the film's scenarists, Antonioni and longtime collaborator Tonino Guerra, the dialogue sounded like a translation from another language; it was a big mistake. For this release, the conversation has been put into Italian, a huge improvement.
Now, without the distraction of that clumsy dialogue, it works better. It's a film of lush backgrounds and flesh, with more of that special mood of chilly unease we recall from the other, great Antonionis: the wind rustling the leaves in "Blowup's" impeccable park or the island search for the missing Anna in "L'Avventura."
We've been far too rough with elderly film giants like Carl Dreyer, Charlie Chaplin, John Ford and Federico Fellini, all of whom were ridiculed by critics for their last few works. Antonioni, who was 89 when he shot his part of "Eros" in 2001, is getting the same kind of treatment. But, in this film, one of three he's made since the 1985 stroke that made him mute, he does seem to be honestly interested in turning us on.
And though his colleagues Wong and Soderbergh are notably more successful here, "Eros" lets Antonioni return explicitly to the erotic/ennui themes of his '60s-'70s classics, showing what before he had to conceal. Does that ruin the film? Only if you have a fetish for youth.
Directed and written by Wong Kar-wai ("The Hand"), Steven Soderbergh ("Equilibrium") and Michelangelo Antonioni ("The Dangerous Thread of Things"). With Gong Li, Chang Chen ("The Hand"); Robert Downey Jr., Alan Arkin and Ele Keats ("Equilibrium"); Christopher Buchholz, Regina Nemni and Luisa Ranieri ("The Dangerous Thread of Things"). In Mandarin Chinese, with English subtitles ("Hand"), English ("Equilibrium") and Italian, with English subtitles ("Thread"). A Warner Independent Pictures release; opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema. Running time: 0:43 (The Hand"), 0:26 ("Equilibrium"), 0:31 ("Thread"). MPAA rating: R (for nudity, sexuality and language).