The thematic center of Eros is erotic desire. The formal conceit is more daring and less interesting: divided into three parts, it’s designed as a “tribute to” Michelangelo Antonioni, who directs one section, with others by Wong Kar-Wai and Steven Soderbergh. And its misconception is obvious from the start: it opens with a series of drawings, suggestively posed figures on faux oriental tapestries, set to a charming, mildly romantic, Caetano Veloso song (a tribute to Antonioni). It’s adult contemporary eroticism.
The tone shifts with Wong Kar-Wai’s The Hand, which hits its mark (and is fortuitously set as the first piece, giving you an opportunity to duck out early.) Set in the 1960s, it follows Miss Hua (Gong Li in some of the most gorgeous dresses ever photographed), a sultry but also wistful Hong Kong call girl. Following a passionate and random sexual encounter, her tailor, Zhang (Chang Chen), becomes lost in a web of infatuation. Their intimate (and random) encounter has awakened a passion for life inside of him that he focuses on his dressmaking. His desire reaches a boiling point after Miss Hua contracts an illness and becomes a shell of what she once was. Zhang sees his chance to reawaken her in much the same way that she has done for him.
Their passion builds up until it informs every gesture. But, unlike the other two sections, Wong Kar-Wai’s doesn’t focus on a kinesthesis of desire at the expense of an emotional undercarriage. The Hand ends with a fragile and wounded Zhang staring into the narrow confines of his tailor shop, his eyes misting with his yet unrealized yearning. The vulnerability of this tableau is far sexier than everything else in Eros. The Hand distills the intimacy and frustration of Wong’s greatest films (In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express) down to a quarter of the length of last year’s 2046 without losing any of its emotional impact.
And so it’s a shame that Soderbergh’s decidedly un-erotic, one-note show, Equilibrium, is so tedious and trite. A half-realized exercise in which Nick (Robert Downey Jr.) is a patient of psychiatrist Dr. Pearl (Alan Arkin), it serves primarily as segueway to Antonioni’s pretentiously titled The Dangerous Thread of Things (Il Filo pericoloso delle cose). Featuring the most skin and the most direct treatment of sex of the three, this section focuses on the interrelations of Christopher (Christopher Buchholzm), Chloe (Regina Nemni), and Linda (Luisa Ranieri).
While Wong Kar-Wai’s eroticism is complemented by Christopher Doyle’s camera’s too-closeness, Antonioni’s evocation suffers from the opposite problem. Since it doesn’t generate sympathy for its bickering characters, the eventual sex scene seems listless, even strangely pornographic. Antonioni’s films are often characterized by their passion and eroticism, usually illustrated with innovative and suggestive camerawork. But here the angles and framing are secondary to the bodies, which fail to elicit any emotional response from the viewer. The characters’ serial pairings are increasingly intercut with long, seemingly thoughtful looks at the pretty countryside (hollowly echoing Antonioni’s trademark exploration of space, epitomized in L’avventura), until their dialogue finally dries up completely, and the old master brings it on home with some nude new wave movement exercises on the beach. Eros aims high. But aside from Wong Kar-Wai’s effectively compressed erotic musings, it falls short.