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Cinema Signal:

An Anthology

. "Eros"

Billed as a 3-film anthology by 2 young and acclaimed directors as an homage to a third (the acclaimed master Michelangelo Antonioni), this collection of erotically themed shorts has the effect of diminishing the master's work. It's a sort of "quit while you're ahead" advisory.

Writer-director Wong Kar Wai's "The Hand" starts the trilogy, and its take on eroticism is decidedly Asian in setting and temperament. Hua Yibao, an exotic Hong Kong courtesan (Gong Li) is enjoying her rule over the rich and appreciative male clients who pay for her expensive tastes, particularly in clothes. Her reputation is intact and rising, as her tailor, a man who understands stardom, is honored to keep so lustrous a figure in new and original attire as befits her excellent body and wide fame.

How well this is going to continue hangs in the balance when the master tailor sends his new assistant (Chang Chen) to measure his star client for a new piece. Xiao Zhang (Chen Chang) shows up with great eagerness to accomodate the famous prostitute. His excitement is on a baser level, as well, aroused to be in her exotic, storied presence. Seeing this, she displays her seductive inclinations by using her hands and his to seal their loyalty and devotion to one another in the pursuit of good suits, a semi-sexual bond that becomes suppressed love enduring through years of diminishing allure.

Of the three films, this is the most truly erotic and fantasy-creating. Gong Li is in her element and she's as fine as silky gossamer. Chen Chang's intense performance is worth the price of admission. The visual quality provided by cinematographer Christopher Doyle combines mystery and suggestion to produce a mood of gauzy beauty appropriate to the theme of desire obscured as devotion.

In Steven Soderbergh's "Equilibrium," Nick Penrose (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a highly stressed patron of a different kind of specialist. He has come to psychiatrist Dr. Pearl (Alan Arkin) for treatment in order to understand and deal with a disturbing dream. After a willful joust with the shrink, he decides that the session might amount to something useful if he just cooperates and takes the couch. Faced away from the doc, he is unable, while recounting his troublesome recurring images, to see the antics out the window that the doc engages in. In the Arkin repertoire of surreality, it provides comic relief but doesn't impair the ultimately therapeutic effects of the visit. Penrose finally realizes who the familiar but unidentifiable woman in his nocturnal visions really is.

The black and white film brings a sharp 1950's look to the setting, and edgy, shadowy "Maltese Falcon" lighting by the director-writer who takes cinematographic credits under his pseudonym, Peter Andrews. In this lair of psychoanalysis, you almost expect Sidney Greenstreet to interrupt the proceedings. Until that happens, Downey and Arkin remain at the top of their form.

More troublesome from a successful storytelling point of view is the last episode, "Il filo pericoloso delle cose," aka, "The Dangerous Thread of Things," in which a fortyish married couple Christopher and Cloe (Christopher Buchholz and Regina Nemni) face elusive reasons for the weakness of their marriage. It's not merely a matter of attraction to others, at least not until a local free spirit of a girl (Luisa Ranieri) flirts with Christopher and seduces him in her tower apartment. The more lasting marital problem of disinterest continues.

Unfortunately, the feeling applies as well to the viewer, effecting an unintended incredibility beyond the dramatic framework. The characters, themselves, are a study in awkward emptiness. They're not engaging; the vitality of the situation is drained, and the dramatic content is shallower than the background shoreline. This is not the erotically driven and visionary master Antonioni of "L'Avventura," the one who inspired the other two directors of the collection. Perhaps the indecisive "Cose," or "Things" of Antonioni's title is a giveaway of a less than involving piece of film expression, both for the filmmaker and for his audience. The steam has dissipated.

Three directorial takes on a theme spins a synthetic thread with which to tie together distinctive aesthetic dispositions, but does such a package provide particular insight or revelation? It's not an approach we see much of nor is this collection likely to start something new in the film cosmos. But, it should be mentioned that, while the brevity of the contributions may suggest TV, the depth and detail of exploration (not to say the exotic sexuality) stake out a higher literary level than we would expect to find on a program schedule. Outside of PBS, of course, where I could see it as a wholly appropriate item alongside a BBC series one day.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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