This is going to sound like total blasphemy, but here goes: Of the three shorts about sex that make up “Eros,” the one from Italian icon Michelangelo Antonioni — the inspiration behind the trilogy — is by far the weakest.
Pretentious to the point of stultification, it’s actually an anticlimax (if you’ll pardon the pun) following Wong Kar Wai’s lushly sensual introduction and Steven Soderbergh’s light, snappy midsection.
The contribution from the 92-year-old director of “Blow Up” and L’Avventura” almost feels like a parody of an art-house film, with its stilted dialogue, long, draggy stretches and dubbing that seems to be intentionally distracting.
But the triad begins promisingly with Wong’s “The Hand,” starring the gorgeous Gong Li as a 1960s courtesan and Chang Chen as the shy young tailor who secretly loves her and makes the dresses she wears for other men.
Visually, it calls to mind Wong’s 2000 film “In the Mood For Love,” full of dimly lit hallways and richly textured furnishings and clothes so delicately detailed you’ll want to reach out and touch the lace and beading.
When Chang’s character, Zhang, first meets Ms. Hua, she’s at the height of her beauty and sexual prowess, which she wields by forcing him to take off his pants and lightly caressing his inner thighs.
“Remember this feeling,” she says softly yet sternly, “and you’ll make me beautiful clothes.”
Over the years, as Zhang’s skills improve, Ms. Hua slips into physical and financial decline. But the film maintains an arresting aesthetic and an obvious fondness for both characters, even in the pouring rain (drops of which drip down Ms. Hua’s shapely calves) and even when Ms. Hua is forced to move into a seedy hotel.
Wong continues to prove himself a master of manipulating light, shadow and color, evoking a mesmerizing mood and a slowly building tension.
By contrast, Soderbergh’s segment, “Equilibrium,” couldn’t be more different. He shot it (under his cinematographer pseudonym, Peter Andrews) using dark blacks and blinding whites, with sunlight slashing like daggers through the horizontal blinds.
With its jazzy, New-York-in-the-’50s vibe, this second section almost feels like it belongs in another movie — but thankfully it is here, because it’s the most entertaining part. Alan Arkin and Robert Downey Jr. prove themselves a perfect comic pair as a psychiatrist and his patient, sitting down for their first session together.
Downey’s character, jittery ad man Nick Penrose, tells Arkin’s Dr. Pearl that he keeps having this strange dream and he’s worried that it’s going to destroy his marriage. It has something to do with a mysterious woman in a hotel room, with whom he’s just had sex. She walks naked into the bathroom and pins up her hair to take a bath. The phone rings and she tells Nick to ignore it.
What makes the segment funny is that while Nick is lying on the couch wrestling with his subconscious urges, Dr. Pearl has pulled out a pair of giant binoculars and is not-so-slyly trying to communicate with someone he sees out the window. The verbal dance the two men do turns into terrific physical farce with a clever punch line, although the absolute ending is a bit obtuse.
We’ll just leave it at that. Because then comes part three, titled “The Dangerous Thread of Things,” which is neither dangerous nor does it have the continuity of anything resembling a thread.
A married couple, Christopher (Christopher Buchholz) and Cloe (Regina Nemni), are spending a miserable vacation together in Italy, and Antonioni spends mind-numbing amounts of time following the minutiae of their day. She sunbathes topless or walks around wearing a diaphanous red blouse. He barely speaks to her as they drive around in his sporty, expensive convertible.
“I’ve always loved this place, but with you here it oppresses me,” Cloe proclaims before running off.
Christopher ends up having anonymous afternoon sex with an inordinately friendly, top-heavy local woman. Cloe ends up dancing naked on the beach. The couple remains at an impasse. The end.
And what have we learned from this whole exercise? That the film, like the intimate act it’s about, is full of ups and downs? Surely that cannot be all there is.