Three-Way Split: "Eros"
by Nicolas Rapold with responses from Kristi Mitsuda and Nick Pinkerton
[ indieWIRE's weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot. ]
Set the bar about here (indicates ankle): this is, after all, a high-profile omnibus film, the art-house dinosaur of variations on a theme. Not only that, the theme is "eros," saved from soft-core devaluation by the pedigree of Antonioni's concerned 1960 declaration at Cannes that "Eros is sick." It seems fairest to embrace the potential for failure--in other words, for experimentation--rather than demand a demeaning tasting platter of directors or a vehicle for your favorite director between features. That said, a crib sheet for the failings of "Eros" can be found in the work itself: Wong Kar-wai's supple agonies of memory and desire in "The Hand" leave Soderbergh's ludic "Equilibrium" looking light and chattery as an advert conceit, and Soderbergh's deadpan cleverness in turn sets up Antonioni's unapologetic art-house throwback for a fall. (The latter's first line: "Why do we have to pollute the world with these empty words?")
But Wong Kar-wai's short about a shy tailor initiated by and then obsessed with his courtesan client (Gong Li) scores a clear success, in the vein of "In the Mood for Love," "Days of Being Wild," and "2046," and disappoints only in not surprising. Wong's thematic and formal unity is best articulated in the multiple credit of William Chang--editor, production designer, costumer--who, with cinematographer Chris Doyle, maintains the signature mix of texture and longing. Wong does innovate in heightening the distance built into desire by introducing the theme of contagion and contact, opening with the tailor visiting the sick, fallen courtesan who warns him away. The bulk of the film follows in Wong style by recapitulating the trail of longing that led to that moment, a chronicle of bodies and hallways, surfaces and emptiness, rendered in one-sided wide compositions and recurring motifs like a circular wall mirror and the familiar thin wall separating love-makers. When the same-old, same-old looks this good, it's hard to complain, and replicating from his features the feel of many years traversed is no small accomplishment in a short.
Soderbergh's "Equilibrium" trades mood (and more) for conceit, and though he also goes retro the gesture is ironic (and perhaps compensatory): it's monochrome fifties America, not lush sixties Hong Kong, and the protagonists are not lovers but an adman (Robert Downey, Jr.) and his psychiatrist (Alan Arkin, continuing a little franchise playing all the shrinks that were no help to his Yossarian in "Catch-22"). Soderbergh displaces eros to a narrative play with continuum and simultaneity: Arkin spies on and signs to someone through the window while cogently psychoanalyzing Downey (who, talking from the couch, can't see the antics). It's somewhat interesting, but it's also interesting to recall that "Eros," besides following a theme, was also intended to pair Antonioni with two major acolytes, and Soderbergh reportedly replaces a planned Almodóvar short.
The justified genealogy would be, I suppose, to Soderbergh's "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," which seized upon a loner's video obsession as embodying the distances we keep. But it's difficult not to read "Equilibrium" as instead the latest twist on Soderbergh's own project of reflexivity and celebrity, read in the trilogy of "The Limey" and the "Ocean's Eleven" celebrity revues. This time--and most of the time, some would argue--the celebrity is Soderbergh's: first indie hero, then Oscar journeyman, and finally, maddeningly, popping up in an art-house omnibus film. Whether viewed as diverting one-offs or mixed experiments, "Eros" does seem to miss a major opportunity in choosing Soderbergh over, say, a woman director (didn't anyone learn from 1987's sausage-fest omnibus "Aria"?).
The joke of the Soderbergh short does implicitly acknowledge how utterly uninteresting someone else's obsessions can be, a self-consciousness Antonioni's "The Dangerous Thread of Things" could use. Any new work by Antonioni is a historic document--and his other recent short, "Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo," a very interesting one indeed--but this iteration of Antonionia (rhymes with anhedonia) suffers in this compact form. Set in Tuscany, the story begins with a bickering couple, follows the man's affair with another woman, and ends on the women encountering each other and themselves in/by dancing nude on the beach.
If Antonioni doesn't adopt the retro setting of his putative understudies, he does deploy the familiar powerful techniques that, in the usual irony of revolutionary art, now comprise art-film language itself and lose freshness unless reworked: "temps mort," unmotivated camera movements, expansive compositions of alienation, and, above all, the disaffected rich, who lose existential cred here in the luscious color and contemporary Armani casuals. Aside from capturing a series of temporal impressions, Antonioni may be intending an update on the state of eros in a pornographic age; at least, one wants to make something of the one unusual scene, in which the second woman engages in a pre-coital session of masturbation whilst standing on her bed. But "Thread" feels as sterile as "Lo Sguardo" is both focused and suggestive.
[Nicolas Rapold, a film writer based in New York, is a frequent contributor to Reverse Shot.]
By Kristi Mitsuda
Ranging from 26 to 43 minutes, what these three staggeringly different interpretations of the erotic--Wong's elegant model of restraint, a mock intellectual deconstruction in Soderbergh's, the gratuitously bare sexuality of Antonioni's--so succinctly illustrate, more than the Eros they attempt to define, is how difficult it is to harness the rhythms of the cinematic equivalent to the short story. The form, too long for mere gimmickry to sustain it, too brief for detailed development, finds its ends achieved with varying degrees of success here, as in another triptych, "New York Stories," which likewise seemed brilliant upon conception, has its moments, but ultimately fails as a whole.
Wong's "The Hand" kicks things off with a bang, the crudely sexual introductory come-on seamlessly segueing into a tale of agonizing longing never acted upon, but the high bar he sets remains, unfortunately, unmet by the adjoining episodes. Soderbergh's, well-intentioned and beautifully shot in noir-ish black-and-white, is a stark shift away from the former, an emphatically un-erotic and irreverent entry which begins intriguingly but lapses into a joke exhausted long before its time is up. Even more disappointingly, the exercise in cheap titillation that is the final installment by Antonioni is baffling. Though never narratively-predisposed, the gentle meandering that usually works as sublime meditation in the living legend's work here simply flounders with no rhyme or reason, his explicit showcasing of the female form signifying nothing other than a flat appreciation of voluptuousness.
Watching this exploration, I could only wonder what a cinematic erotica from a woman's perspective would look like. The exclusive, collective catering to the masculine spectator left me feeling as unacknowledged as if I'd been watching a porn movie, female desires and notions of sexiness shunted into a dark corner somewhere unaddressed.
[ Kristi Mitsuda is a frequent contributor to Reverse Shot and maintains the blog artflickchick.com. ]
By Nick Pinkerton
"Eros," this odd little revival of the late-Sixties auteur anthology, immediately sounds too puffed-up to titillate. One has to balk at the film's pretense; it's burdened with a title that smacks of upper middle-class pseudo-intellectual "sensuality"--think mahogany bookshelves of sex manuals, volumes of "Herotica," and a half-empty bottle of white wine. Why, close your eyes in the interludes between films and, listening to Caetano Veloso's cooed theme "Michelangelo Antonioni," you can almost see bearded academics in mid-coitus!
The film was built to showcase a new Antonioni short, "The Dangerous Thread of Things," positioned to bat cleanup after a minor piece by Wong Kar-wai and an irksome, arch trifle by Steven Soderbergh. And surprisingly, Antonioni's made a fascinating, frustratingly Eurotrash-pompous work, the movie's saving grace. Christopher Buchholz and Regina Nemni navel-gaze through vivid Tuscan vistas, their marriage dissolving as they go back-and-forth with obtuse zingers like "You're always looking for purity and end up in shit." It's loopy in the way that self-indulgent ennui always is, and not nearly as far from Antonioni's classic period as detractors might want to think; forget the aura fostered by time and canonization and you'll find this is pretty close to the posh dissipation in which Monica Vitti once dwelled.
And as easy as it is to guffaw at all this Maserati-set ennui or at Enrica Antonioni's (Michelangelo's wife, naturally) unfortunate score, "Dangerous Thread" will stay with this viewer for some time to come. Its half-hour is chockablock with articulate camera gestures, and Antonioni lends this tepid Eros some straightforward, smutty, and arousing moments; Luisa Raniera stands to masturbate on her bed, dizzyingly looming over the camera, before plunging into a joyous, tricky, combative screw. "Dangerous Thread"'s images are more than equal to the imposing, mythological import of that word, Eros: we have a herd of horses rumbling across open plains, a roiling ocean, monolithic towers, and, most unforgettably, two nude girls seen from afar bathing in a cascade, like twin singing sirens. It's a humming, palpable, sensualist's mythos, and just about as absurd as good sex should be.
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]