The subject of Eros isn’t so much eros as what the same word means to three distinctive filmmakers: Wong Kar Wai, Steven Soderbergh, and Michelangelo Antonioni. Well, not so much what the word means personally, either, but what the third filmmaker means to the other two, given that Antonioni’s groundbreaking, influential work, including L’Avventura and Blow-Up, defined the modern European cinema of alienated eros in the 1960s and ’70s. Judging from The Dangerous Thread of Things, the honoree’s own wispy contribution to the trilogy, the ailing 93-year-old still has emptiness, carnal ennui, and the indecipherable pouts of untamable women on his mind. He also retains a taste for the trappings of an affluent, sullen loneliness — towers, beaches, long stretches of empty road. Very ’70s — and yet very Sundance, this period piece.
What Antonionian eros means to Wong and Soderbergh, meanwhile, remains a muddle, as anthology movie projects so often do: For the invited filmmaker, the opportunity to make a statement is surely a thrill, but for the viewer — who can’t pause indefinitely, as with a book, between stories — the focus-shifting is a demand. (Caetano Veloso coos brief musical interludes between films.) In The Hand, Wong whips up a ripe fable of lifelong obsession predicated on one moment of bliss manually bestowed years ago by an alluring courtesan (the ever-creamy Gong Li) on a dazed tailor’s apprentice (Crouching Tiger‘s Chang Chen). The literally sweaty settings (a steam-clouded tailor’s shop, a sex-damp hotel room, rainy streets of desire familiar from In the Mood for Love) and voluptuous sadness are pure Wong, but the intention — a hand job as homage! — is sweetly nuts.
As for Soderbergh, the inveterate game-player strives for puckishness by choosing a jokey, peekaboo approach to the subject: Equilibrium is set in the repressed 1950s, where Robert Downey Jr. plays a New York adman tormented by a recurring dream, who takes his unreliable subconscious to a psychiatrist played by Alan Arkin. Even the setup and casting are built to jest: This is homage by way of after-dinner skit.