by Julien Lapointe
Dir. Wong Kar-wai/Steven Soderbergh/Michelangelo
Antonioni, Italy/U.S./Hong Kong,
“Eros is sick,”
Michelangelo Antonioni once told film scholar
Seymour Chatman—a revealing quote in light of
Eros, a new anthology of three shorts respectively
by Wong Kar-wai, Steven Soderbergh, and Antonioni
himself. He meant that his generation in postwar
Italy, settling for drab marriages and dull jobs,
had neglected life’s earthly erotic pleasures.
Whenever an Antonioni character in an early classic
(L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse)
went looking for illicit sex, exotic travels,
a little adventure, they always wound up empty.
By contrast his more recent work—Identification
of a Woman, Beyond the Clouds, and
his Eros entry, “The Dangerous Thread of
Things”—is rife with picture-perfect villas, beaches,
and sex, yet it all looks unnervingly becalmed.
Eros is alive and well, but that’s no cause for
celebration. No matter what you do, most of his
films seem to say, life’s riches can never fully
That may be part of the problem so many American filmgoers have with Antonioni. When they enjoy aestheticism, it tends to be of the pragmatic kind, like in American Beauty; which purports to find the beauty in the banal that’s for everyone’s taking. One of the most memorable shots in “Dangerous Thread” shows a seaside reflected in a window; it looks clear as day, yet just beyond our worldly touch. For Antonioni beauty is always immaterial—although, as we’ll see, later scenes in this short suggest an exception to this. The two other shorts in Eros, while characteristic of their filmmakers, pay heed to this insight and point to further affinities between all three of them.
Wong Kar-wai’s “The Hand” suggests the scene in Beyond the Clouds where a young man glides his hand over a nude beauty without daring to touch her. Wong’s short essays man’s need to aestheticize women and underscores what every director who’s put a sexy star on screen knows: Some people look more desirable when we can’t see their humanity. Young tailor Zhang (Chang Chen) develops a years-long fixation on courtesan Miss Hua (Gong Li), learning her every measurement as he goes to work for her, while sticking to the periphery of her life. At one point she flirtingly suggests that they could marry, but he never follows through. Toiling away in the confines of a tailor shop, Zhang needs Hua to daydream about, as a distraction from all the drabness. As she falls into poverty and illness, he scrambles to maintain her renown, paying her rent to cover up that she’s broke and then lying to others about her being happily married after she’s dead.
Near the end, Wong Kar-wai pays homage to the parting shots of Antonioni’s L’Eclisse. In that sequence we realize, over a montage of a street corner, that a lovers’ tryst is over: they’re too caught up in the hustle of big city life to even keep a rendezvous. Wong gives us shots of the empty building entrance and staircase leading to Hua’s place, echoing the series of shots that defined Zhang’s first visit, only now she’s gone. It isn’t just that romance has failed to blossom. More drastically, modern life, with its busy crowds and vacant spaces, has become the ultimate enemy to human contact. At heart Wong Kar-wai and Antonioni are both romantic fatalists, suggesting that romantic and erotic love is what makes us fully human, while demanding that their characters wind up alone.
That romantic fatalism owes a debt to film noir and indeed both transplant many hallmarks of the genre—enigmatic women, mysterious crimes, a foreboding lonely mood—into a minimalist aesthetic. Film noir places its heroes in convoluted plots, as if to foretell of their hapless end: they have no chance of steering their lives towards a happy conclusion, much less anticipating the next twist in the story. Likewise two of Wong’s best-known films, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, cast cops and contract killers adrift in elliptical narratives that mirror their isolation and incompleteness. It’s been said that many an Antonioni film (L’Avventura, Blow-Up) hinges on a crime that may have never taken place. Many film noirs disturb because they portray crime or cruel twists of fate as wholly arbitrary, but Antonioni is even worse: he’ll intimate a wrong-doing, then leave us guessing over what has really happened and why.
Antonioni’s handling of American pop genres and materials is that of an outsider. By contrast, everything about Steven Soderbergh’s Eros entry “Equilibrium” is resonantly American. Superficially, its story of an ad agent (Robert Downey, Jr.) who dreams of a perfect pitch but has no inspiration in his waking life fits with the anthology’s overall conception of beauty as elusive. It also illustrates the perennial challenge of Hollywood directors, like Soderbergh, of putting creativity to commercial use. The film is a pastiche of screwball and noir, full of fast talk, funny banter, and venetian blind shadows. What’s more its décor suggests the Fifties, a decade whose iconic landmarks (suburbs, fast food, television) have come to stand for Americana. Critics have complained that “Equilibrium” doesn’t gel with the rest of Eros, but it’s not meant to. Sandwiched between two meditative, understated shorts, it’s geared to demonstrate that American culture and art can never mix.
Dramatically “The Dangerous Thread of Things,” Eros’s culminating entry, is familiar territory for Antonioni, with a jaded married couple on the verge of separation. Yet the film ends with a hint of possible renewal, as they contemplate their surroundings and concede some of their flaws. Some of it looks silly, such as the wife’s nude dance contortions on a beach, set to the rhythm of New Age sounds. But the film is unique for Antonioni, in envisioning a world where people might find genuine contentment. What’s most distinctive are the beautiful seaside and pastoral locations, which he nonetheless renders somewhat uncanny. There are fairy tale and mythical references (chanting sirens, stone towers, a galloping horse) and, in one eerie scene, a row of trees which mysteriously bend diagonally and inward, as if to form a low ceiling. Here, Antonioni has given us a modern-day paradise, only to suggest that it might not exist.