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September 17, 2004 2:00 AM
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Wong Kar-wai Dominates Uneven "Eros"

Wong Kar-wai Dominates Uneven "Eros"

by Peter Brunette









A scene from "Eros." Image provided by The Toronto International Film Festival.

With the exception of Wong Kar-wai's contribution, the new three-part compilation film "Eros" is, alas, anything but erotic. That wouldn't necessarily be an insurmountable barrier to enjoying it, but much of the film isn't, on any grounds, very interesting. A throwaway episode by Steven Soderbergh, whose script seems to have taken all of ten minutes to conceptualize, and an archly artificial effort by nonagenarian Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni, that will be of interest only to Antonioni aficionados, round out the ill-fitting trio. The most stirring thing about these two episodes, ironically enough, is the gorgeous song, "Michelangelo Antonioni," sung in Italian by the Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso, that connects them. Luckily, Wong's episode is haunting and lovely, once again very much in the style of his masterpiece "In the Mood for Love." Even better, this 39-minute episode comes first, which will allow audiences to skip out on the rest.

This first segment is called "The Hand," and is meant as an homage to that motif found perennially in Antonioni's work (as is a later, quick series of shots of empty rooms and hallways that recalls the finale of Antonioni's greatest film, "L'Eclisse"). Gong Li plays a courtesan in what seems to be the 1950's in what is apparently Hong Kong. Chang Chen (who appeared in Wong's earlier film "Happy Together") is the new tailor who comes to take her measurements for a dress. In the process she fondles him, bringing him to climax while whispering in his ear that she wants him to remember that feeling each time he makes a dress for her. The years pass and when she falls on hard times and becomes ill, the tailor tries to take care of her. The tubercular woman, now a common street prostitute, repays him once again with all she's got left, her hand.

The familiar Wongian themes are there: the passing of time and the tragic impossibility of the right people ever managing to be in love at the same time. Even better, the usual Wong team has been reassembled, with the inimitable Chris Doyle acting as director of photography and William Chang Suk-ping decorating the set and editing. Delicious, trademark slow-motion shots enhance the dreamy, erotic effect. Nevertheless, it must also be said that the episode in no way represents an aesthetic advance for Wong, but rather a summary re-statement in a moving, minimalist key.

Minimalist is also, perhaps, the most charitable word that could be applied to "Equilibrium," Soderbergh's contribution. We still seem to be in the 1950's, but this time, it's America and we're in the office of a shrink (Alan Arkin), who's distractedly listening to the recounting of a boring dream by his patient (Robert Downey, Jr.) about a woman answering a phone. The film stock is a creamy black-and-white, and the set is sliced by large bands of shadows from a Venetian blind, in the style of classic film noir. Seated behind his patient, the psychoanalyst spends the entire session apparently ogling a scantily-clad woman -- though we never actually see her -- with different sizes of binoculars (à la James Stewart in Hitchcock's "Rear Window," a clear reference). He begins to make hand signals to her, then ends up flying paper airplanes out the window. Then we find out it's all been a merely a dream.

Antonioni's segment, "The Dangerous Thread of Things," centers around that classic topos, a couple -- an Italian woman and an American man living in Italy, inexplicably driving a car with Parisian license plates -- who are on the verge of breaking up. Written by legendary Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra from a short sketch found in Antonioni's book "That Bowling Alley on the Tevere," the episode seems intended to represent some symbolic, otherworldly space, or at least you hope so, because the dialogue is pretentious and completely laughable from beginning to end. Fans of Antonioni's work will recognize the motif of the doubled woman from "L'Avventura" and the pristine beach from "Red Desert," but unfortunately the most consistent connection will be made with the disastrous "Zabriskie Point," whose bad acting made the film notorious within Antonioni's oeuvre. As always in an Antonioni film, space comments obliquely on the film's themes, but the director seems more interested in the two women featured in the film who are almost completely naked throughout. It's pleasant to think of this 92-year-old master still in thrall to the female form.

It's sad to think how thrilling this kind of filmmaking once was. Now, done poorly, it forcefully reminds us how much things have changed, and in how many ways.

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