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Courtesan in a Blue Dress: Gong Li attracts the attention of a young tailor sent to work on her costumes in 'Eros.'

One for Three

'Eros' is anything but arousing

By Richard von Busack

I HOPE I don't sound like the lechers on the Craigslist film forum when I argue that titling a film Eros gives an audience certain expectations—expectations that go beyond what is served up in this trilogy: (1) a painful-looking hand job, (2) a half-glimpsed garter belt and (3) some very Playboyish nudes by the aged and infirm Michelangelo Antonioni. I blame the times, not the directors. First-rate filmmakers like Wayne Wang and Bernardo Bertolucci are dragged through it by critics when they dare to make something erotic. Naturally, when directors like Steven Soderbergh and Wong Kar-Wai approach sexual material, they tiptoe.

Wong's episode in this three-parter, The Hand, is about the 1963 sexual inauguration of a young tailor (Chang Chen) who has come to costume a notorious courtesan called Ms. Hua (Gong Li). The businesslike incident that occurs between them becomes a mooning, unrequited one-way love affair of the sort that's very, very familiar to those who have seen any of Wong's films. The typhoon-dampened interiors are a little more mildewed than usual; the fates a little unkinder than usual. Ultimately, I responded less than ever to the director's combination of classic-movie restraint and Nouvelle Vague aridity. And I'm frustrated yet again by his inability to show the passage of time in any better way than to have a previously clean-shaven character turn up sporting a mustache.

The Soderbergh contribution, Equilibrium, wasn't erotic, except in the abstract. He works a cerebral tease. We see a feverish voyeur (Alan Arkin, looking as agelessly masculine as Pablo Picasso) staring out an office window, leering through a pair of binoculars. And we keep expecting—hopelessly—to see what's got him so hot and bothered. If Equilibrium isn't sexy, it is funny. In 1953, a distracted ad man called Penrose (Robert Downey Jr.) has come to a psychiatrist (Arkin). Penrose keeps dreaming of a woman in blue, who is dressing for the day as she's about to leave him.

The sequence spins off from the famous opening of Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, and Videotape—the patient obfuscating, the doctor seeing through it handily; however, the meaning is less than clear. Ultimately, the courtship of the subconscious with the conscious? At least, here there was a serious erotic element, represented by a model (Ele Keats) dressed in high 1950s fashion, posed against royal blue walls.

The Antonioni episode, The Dangerous Thread of Things, is a sad echo of earlier work. Antonioni is perhaps too infirm to construct another puzzle about the one woman who embodies two halves: big-bosomed (Luisa Ranieri) and slender and tattooed (Regina Nemni); giving and withholding; sexual and frigid; modern and old-fashioned, tedious and tediouser. Here the aged director traffics in the least-classic symbols of passion, including a cluster of proud stampeding stallions, a lone phallic tower, a naked Deadhead dance on the beach and a very slow Maserati. In two words: Oui magazine.

Eros (R; 104 min.), directed by Wong Kar-Wai, Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the April 20-26, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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