Constructed of three short films connected by the slimmest of thematic threads — what movie isn’t about sex in some way? — Eros is an illustration of why short films, short stories, and one-act plays can often be unsatisfying. Working from ideas that lack the dramatic, emotional, or intellectual heft and complexity to merit a full-length exploration, shorts frequently consist of a notion whose creator is unable to develop it at length but cannot let go of it either. The result is often a work that’s of interest only to the filmmaker and his fiercest partisans. If they do become interesting at all, they often end just as we begin to care.
Anthologies of such works can begin to function with the richness of a feature film or a novel when they are assembled of parts that are sufficiently integrated by time, place, or character so that the individual stories resonate off each other, suggesting richer meanings. One anthology film that works this way is Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express, and it’s Wong’s contribution to Eros, “The Hand,” that feels most complete. Set in 1960s Hong Kong, it tells the story of Zhang (Chang Chen), a young apprentice tailor, and one of his master’s biggest clients, Ms. Hua (Gong Li), a beautiful, imperious courtesan. When Zhang first goes to her apartment, she’s just finishing with a client, and he’s aroused by what he overhears. Calling him into her bedroom afterward, Ms. Hua expertly senses Zhang’s arousal and his inexperience with women. She goads him, embarrasses him, and finally offers him a small sample of her services (it involves the title extremity), saying, “Never touched a woman before, have you? Then how can you be a tailor? You’ll be touching many women.” But he’ll be touching them only as a tailor, as Ms. Hua has Zhang hooked. By offering the shy boy a limited sort of sexual initiation, she’s inadvertently won his lasting, obsessive devotion. Not that she much notices. Time passes without diminishing either his ardor or her indifference, until finally, at a low point in her own life, she notices the supplicant at the foot of her throne. Again, she offers a small kindness that to him is an emotional and erotic Super Bowl: a drink together in her boudoir, just the two of them.
She departs Hong Kong to ply her wares elsewhere, but her luck is declining along with her looks (or so Wong would have us believe; actually Gong is stunning throughout). She’s been reduced to a common streetwalker, and when her last chance for a sugar daddy falls through, she and Zhang spend a quiet moment together, and again she offers a token of her affection. In outline, it’s fairly standard unrequited-love stuff, but Wong is unusually perceptive and eloquent about the arbitrary nature of our romantic attachments and about the great joys or lasting aches that sometimes come from the least gesture. He also has a finely tuned sense of the erotic; his contribution is the only segment in Eros that truly merits the title. He gets rich performances, full of suppressed yearnings, out of his two leads and photographs Hong Kong as if it were simultaneously the grimiest and most romantic place on earth, the setting for an Asiatic Wuthering Heights.
In Steven Soderbergh’s “Equilibrium,” not so much as a digit comes into play; the sex is all in Robert Downey, Jr.’s head, and so may be the entire story. Downey plays Nick Penrose, a prototypical 1950s ad-man who explains to his new therapist, Dr. Pearl (Alan Arkin) that he lost his equilibrium two weeks ago yesterday, when a coworker started wearing a new, distractingly phony toupee, and Nick began worrying that their firm would be left behind by the catchy slogans of their competitors. That night he had an abstract, sexually charged dream about a woman in a hotel room. Dr. Pearl instructs Nick to lie down on his standard-issue Freudian’s couch and walk him through the entire dream, but Dr. Pearl’s equilibrium is disturbed as well—while Nick’s back is turned, the therapist ogles an unseen woman in a building across the street, distractedly offering the usual therapeutic bromides while looking for his binoculars. The scene winds down, is followed by another scene that seems to explain what happens earlier, and then by another that seems to contradict any previous understanding of the story.
With enough effort, you might be able to figure out what “really” happened, but why bother? Downey is less engaging than usual, Arkin vaguely seedy, as usual, and neither of their characters is written such that we care very much. It’s a thin, TV-level story; it’s like a “Twilight Zone” episode that accidentally got the wrong twist ending in the editing room.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Dangerous Thread of Things” is the most elliptical of this highly elliptical trio. A man and a woman bicker about their crumbling relationship; he sleeps with a neighbor, whose name he never learns, and then disappears; she bumps into the neighbor on the beach, where they both just happen to have been dancing naked in the surf. That’s about all that happens, and about all we ever know about any of these people. They don’t talk much, and what they do say doesn’t reveal much more than that they’re unhappy but too lethargic to do much about it. The theme is summed up in this exchange:
Christopher: How come we’ve never been here before?
Chloe: We’ve never been curious enough.
Christopher: About anything.
Chloe: That’s right.
Boo hoo. Antonioni’s been doing these alienated types off and on for around half a century, and part of me is just happy for him that he’s alive at 92 and still working. But whatever cultural currency this sort of thing might have had a few decades back, it now seems mostly like the soft-porny dodderings of an eccentric old uncle. What makes “The Dangerous Thread” worth seeing — if anything does — is the visual genius of an old-time master. Antonioni’s love for the beauty of the hilly Italian countryside, the rustic, aged facades of the stone towers by the sea, and, indeed, even the naked ladies, is rich, sensual, and moving, suggesting joy and passion that belie the characters’ nihilism.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()