Anthology films are a rare breed. Film festivals, television, and home video are usually the rarely visited homes of short films, but the recent collaboration of four European producers resulted in Eros, an anthology of stories loosely related by the theme of sexual impulse.
The first film, Wong Kar-Wai's 44-minute "The Hand" is the only one that qualifies as eroticism, and it does so with Wong's typical restraint and the aching performances of Gong Li and Chang Chen as a courtesan and her loyal tailor. When the the courtesan meets the tailor, she makes a manual impression on him ("Remember this feeling, and you'll make me beautiful clothes"). Wong traces their relationship with the ritualized repetition for which he's known; scratchy records and other-worldly mirrors add to the film's textural sensitivity, a trait equally attributable to the tailor and the director (working, as ever, with brilliant cinematographer Christopher Doyle). Painterly, forlorn, and exquisitely acted, "The Hand" observes the intersections of erotic imagination and Romantic unavailability.
Steven Soderbergh's 27-minute "Equilibrium" lightens the mood with a funky black-and-white dialogue between two great comic actors: Robert Downey, Jr., as a neurotic business executive, and Alan Arkin as a sexually distracted psychiatrist. These two jittery men of the '50s are emotionally bonded by professional circumstances, scenarios which suggest different kinds of "eros": creativity or, in psychiatric terms, "the sum of all instincts for self-preservation." The piece is all larky novelty in search of relevance, but the jittery fine points of both performances and the handsome black-and-white photography of "Peter Andrews" (Soderbergh's alter ego) compensate with mood. Soderbergh's already infamous director's statement ("I wanted my name on a poster with Michelangelo Antonioni") humorously and accurately deflates his own artistic ambition.
Eros was purportedly designed as an opportunity for two other filmmakers to pay homage to Michelangelo Antonioni, though "Equilibrium" betrays little of Antonioni's influence and "The Hand" shows less (I doubt Pedro Almodóvar, Soderbergh's departed predecessor on the project, would have shown more stylistic fealty). Antonioni closes the film with his own 32-minute trifle "Il filo pericoloso delle cose" ("The Dangerous Thread of Things"), an elliptical take on the frustration of desire inside and outside of a dying marriage. It has exactly as much meaning as you wish to ascribe to it, and I wish to ascribe little. The ninety-something Antonioni's wandering, self-parodic ennui erupts into unconvincingly dubbed resentment then settles back down into stream-of-consciousness ravings and laughable exchanges, scripted by Tonino Guerra (L'Avventura, Blowup) from three vignettes the director published in 1986. "Girl": "I hope you like my chaos." Man: "What kind of chaos?" "Girl": "Total chaos." Hmm.
Soderbergh's story is scarcely more meaningful, but it is significantly more entertaining. It's Wong Kar-Wai's elegant visual formalism that justifies Eros, but pound-for-pound, that may be not be enough, at these prices. Film buffs can probably agree that more than half of Eros is worth seeing, but the sinking feeling of an anthology film that declines with each chapter hardly makes for an easy recommendation. I'd say that this mixed bag is better toted home from a video store, but Wong Kar-Wai's just not as swoony on a picture tube. If you're allergic to art films, run away; cineastes, proceed with caution.