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Unrequited Affection

The Trilogy 'Eros' Has Too Much Fooling Around

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 8, 2005; Page C05

What a concept: a trilogy of short films by Wong Kar-Wai, Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni, each dealing with the subject of love and sex.

In reality, "Eros" is a letdown, a collection of bagatelles that, with one exception, fails to live up to its promise. Initiated by Antonioni's producer, who was looking for projects that might appeal to the 85-year-old, stroke-afflicted legend, "Eros" ironically features something of a warmed-over Antonioni film, the 2001 short feature "The Dangerous Thread of Things." Like so many of his classic films, this nearly wordless sexual melodrama is a study of people in relation to each other and their environment. Perhaps no director has had such a profound understanding of the dynamic between the human body, nature and monumental architecture.

Gong Li and Chang Chen star in "The Hand." (Block 2 Pictures)

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Fans of the Italian director's signature sensuous vistas will luxuriate in the locations Antonioni selected for his segment, also titled "The Dangerous Thread of Things," which transpires over late summer and autumn in the Lake Burano district of Tuscany. A beautiful woman (Regina Nemni) argues outside an imposing tower with her husband (Christopher Buchholz); they jump into a fabulous sports car and drive to a breathtaking waterfall where naked nymphs recline on the rocks. Later, at lunch in a cafe overlooking the Mediterranean, they see another beautiful woman (Luisa Ranieri) riding a horse. Their lives will intersect in unexpected ways, especially when the two women wind up dancing naked on the beach.

It's a forgettable, if self-serious, little trifle, especially considering Antonioni's erotic trilogy of three of his most magnificent films: "L'Avventura," "La Notte" and "L'Eclisse." Luckily for his fans, the last just came out on DVD, a reminder of what Antonioni was capable of at the height of his powers.

If "The Dangerous Thread of Things" manages to be both pretentious and trivial, Soderbergh's "Equilibrium" zings with the brainy humor of the director's most antic work (think "Schizopolis," not "Solaris"). In a welcome return to the screen, Robert Downey Jr. plays a 1950s advertising executive who visits a psychiatrist (Alan Arkin) because he's having a recurring sexual dream. Filmed in sumptuous, highly keyed black-and-white and featuring the rat-a-tat dialogue reminiscent of the era's pulpiest post-noir classics, "Equilibrium" turns out to be a witty, if weightless, one-liner, as Downey's analysand whinges on while the good doctor pursues his own perversions safely beyond the couch. It's a nice-looking, well-acted silly movie for smart people; ultimately its only excuse for being, as Soderbergh says in his director's statement, is that he wanted his name on a poster with Antonioni.

The only film of the three that works, on its own and as part of the trilogy's larger thematic aim, is Kar-Wai's "The Hand," a lush, elegant, quietly erotic parable starring Gong Li and Chang Chen. The sublime Gong plays a courtesan in 1960s Hong Kong who hires a tailor (Chang) to be her personal dressmaker after securing his loyalty with a sexual gesture that manages to be as bold as it is discreet. As the relationship between the two changes with their twisting fortunes, "The Hand" takes on the tragic grandeur of Edith Wharton at her most politely ruthless. With characteristic assurance, intelligence and timeless aesthetic, Kar-Wai and his fabulous lead players create a heady world in which seduction and denial are at continual teasing play. Like the best artists, he knows that in the right hands, the sight of a woman putting on her clothes can be far sexier than one taking them off.

Eros (108 minutes, in Mandarin and Italian, with subtitles, and English, at Landmark's E Street) is rated R for strong sexual content, including nudity and profanity.

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