- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 7, 2005

No pretexts lend themselves as readily to ridicule as sexual pretexts. This commonplace is illustrated anew by the three-part anthology feature “Eros,” booked exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

The package begins with an exercise in lovelorn solemnity, “The Hand,” from Hong Kong’s Wong Kar Wai; it idles with a bumbling vaudeville sketch, “Equilibrium,” from Steven Soderbergh; it concludes with a teasing Tuscan idyll, “The Dangerous Thread of Things,” in which Michelangelo Antonioni observes an estranged couple attracted to the same temptress.

The project began with European producers who were solicitous about Mr. Antonioni, now 92 and partially disabled as the result of a stroke suffered a decade ago. Three entries in a collection of story ideas he published in the early 1980s, “That Bowling Alley on the Tiber: Tales of a Director,” are said to be the source for “Dangerous Thread,” a title drawn from one of the book’s chapter headings.

The Antonioni episode was filmed in 2001 on locations that prove far more intriguing than the skeletal narrative. Despite being twice the age of the younger participants, Mr. Antonioni puts them to shame by recognizing the practicality of accentuating naked actresses in a movie called “Eros.”

He keeps both his older actress, Regina Nemni, and his younger one, Luisa Ranieri, unclad for a substantial amount of time; their characters, Cloe and Linda, respectively, are given to sunbathing along the shores of Lake Burano.

This requirement is more flattering to Miss Ranieri, who offers the camera a blooming physique and acts mighty proud to share it. Miss Nemni looks rather too famished to compete on those terms, and because Cloe is unhappy with a token spouse, Christopher (Christopher Buchholtz), ultimately reduced to a phone connection in Paris, the whole characterization is starved to a fault.

It’s touching that the cerebral Antonioni appreciates the commercial claims of eroticism. Mr. Soderbergh overlooks them in favor of whimsy. Although his segment begins with a recurrent erotic dream, most of “Equilibrium” is an office-bound sketch that partners Robert Downey Jr. as a rambling analysand and Alan Arkin as an inattentive analyst.

While Mr. Downey tediously recalls his dream, Mr. Arkin is distracted by something or other in an office building off-screen. The jokes revolve around his efforts to sneak peeks and flash signals behind the back of an oblivious patient.

This situation might have promise as a slapstick spectacle. One can imagine the shrink’s maneuvers growing so overscaled that the idea of concealment becomes hilariously absurd. Nothing that felicitous saves “Equilibrium.”

There’s far more conviction and atmospheric intensity in the Wong Kar Wai curtain raiser, which surrenders early to erotic frustration and milks the torment.

A tailor played by Chang Chen becomes a slave to love upon meeting fashionable prostitute Gong Li, who mocks his humiliating state of arousal. During years of subsequent fittings, she remains a perversely unattainable romantic obsession. He flourishes professionally, and vice dooms her to an early grave, but only death can resolve his unrequited passion.

The anthology feature enjoyed something of a vogue in the early 1960s. As a rule, however, the format tended to demonstrate that self-contained features had more to offer. “Eros” isn’t seductive enough to refute this proposition.

*1/2

TITLE: “Eros”

RATING: R (Systematic sexual allusions; occasional profanity, nudity and simulated intercourse)

CREDITS: Separate episodes written and directed by Wong Kar Wai, Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni. Linking sequences designed by Lorenzo Mattioti. Theme song by Caetano Veloso. First episode in Mandarin with English subtitles; final episode in Italian with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes

WEB SITE: http://wip.warnerbros.com/eros/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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