Eros is three films joined in a common goal. The first segment was made by Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love) and the second by Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brockovich). The final piece, by any measure the climax, was directed by legendary Michelangelo Antonioni, who is still filming at 93. In fact, Eros is a tribute not merely to the entangled concepts of romantic love and sexual desire but to Antonioni himself.
Both Kar Wai and Soderbergh succeed in invoking the master while retaining a kind of stylistic ownership of their work. Their films are smart, engaging and beautiful to watch, with a refinement of perspective and light rarely seen on the contemporary screen. Antonioni, for his part, does an excellent job of being himself. As a single entity, Eros is a strong work, rich with detail and nuance, though perhaps without the philosophical depth that its French producers intended.
In Kar Wai’s segment, a tailor (Chang Chen) is besotted with desire for an elegant courtesan (Gong Li, Chinese Box). The piece is titled “The Hand,” but it’s also about the shoulder, the neck, the crotch — and, in a starring role, the torso. In fact, toward the beginning, an entire scene passes between two torsos at sexual odds with each other, one pursuing and the other resisting. We don’t see the faces; we only hear the voices.
“The Hand” is a gorgeous work of slow and painful longing, saturated in gray, soaking in romantic pathos. Year after year, the tailor toils at his machine, crafting dresses for a woman who wears them to woo others. Meanwhile, as the seasons pass, the courtesan falls into disgrace, losing her elegant apartment, her dresses and her health.
Soderbergh’s “Equilibrium,” about a neurotic man fussing over a sexual dream, is a lighter piece of work, a jest about the worry and contrivance that make up the average man’s experience of desire. Soderbergh has cast both Robert Downey Jr. and Alan Arkin — two men not noted for their erotic allure — in a film about sex. Arkin plays, hilariously, a profoundly distracted psychiatrist. Downey is less interesting, and his solipsism feels anachronistic (the film is supposed to take place in 1955), but Arkin sails through, carrying us along.
There are delights aplenty in Antonioni’s “The Dangerous Thread of Things,” about a couple whose relationship has tanked. At the segment’s opening, long and lean Cloe (Regina Nemni) sunbathes without a shirt. When her husband Christopher (Christopher Buchholz) takes her for a drive, she slips on a shirt, but it’s transparent. Yes, the generous Atonioni says to us, you can look at her breasts for the entire film. Not quite, though: There’s another character, the young and exceptionally bouncy Linda (Luisa Ranieri), whose breasts we must also devour at great length.
Uniting all three segments is the art of the unseen. Characters are constantly talking to, looking at or overhearing someone beyond the frame, someone we aren’t allowed to observe. All three stories dwell luxuriously in mystery, milking a kind of sensual dreaminess from our not knowing. The result is a three-course delicacy — not for every taste, but a banquet for those it will please.