Eros is a multi-national omnibus compilation movie comprised of three half-hour short films by master filmmakers ruminating on the subject of eroticism and obsessive desire. The project was initiated by Italian maestro Michelangelo Antonioni who, at over 90 years of age, is too frail to direct an entire feature by himself, and so enlisted contributions from Wong Kar Wai of China and Steven Soderbergh of America. Unfortunately, the final results just serve to demonstrate how much Antonioni's once shining star has been eclipsed by those he inspired.
Wong Kar Wai's The Hand is easily the best of the three shorts, and probably the only one that could be classified as genuinely erotic. Chang Chen (the earthy rebel Dark Cloud in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) stars as a timid apprentice tailor in 1960's Hong Kong assigned to design the wardrobe for a well-to-do "kept woman" played by the radiant Gong Li. Upon their first meeting, a self-serving and cynical act of control on her part is nonetheless received as a moment of kindness that fosters a lifetime of devotion. As the years progress and the whore's fortunes decline, the tailor remains faithful to the muse who inspired his greatest work. At just over 40 minutes, Wong's film is a mini-masterpiece of repression and unrequited desire. Featuring almost no explicit nudity, the movie is incredibly sensual, almost tactile in its textures and moods. Wong seduces less with what he shows than with what he refuses to show. It's also a heartbreaking and emotional, multi-layered work about the complexities of love, art, dignity, and compassion.
Steven Soderbergh's Equilibrium (not to be confused with the cheesy sci-fi B-movie of the same title) is more of a lark, a silly riff on the futility of obsession. Robert Downey Jr. delivers one of those mumbly performances typical of his work since burning out on drugs. He stars as a 1955 Madison Avenue ad exec visiting his psychiatrist (Alan Arkin) to interpret a recurring dream he's been having about a mystery woman. The shrink only feigns interest, and while his patient is turned away keeps himself preoccupied with his own peculiar fixation. The movie begins gloriously, as Soderbergh's gently swaying camera teases us with glimpses of the dream woman, then segues into a long talky section focused on word play and the banter between actors, and finally features an enigmatic and confusing ending perhaps meant as a tongue-in-cheek homage to Antonioni. The piece is not a work of art and will at best serve as a footnote in its director's career, but is amusing and entertaining for its 25-minute length.
Then we have Antonioni's The Dangerous Thread of Things, a sad reminder that the once great auteur is well past his prime. Although the director attempts to weave in his signature themes of alienation and portentous symbolism, and still has a talent for choreographing long tracking shots in which the movements of the actors seem to flirt with the camera, the movie is a pale shadow of his earlier works and plays more like a Jess Franco softcore cheapie. The three lead actors whose names are not worth remembering deliver terrible performances and are forced to speak some atrocious dialogue. The plot involves a man and his frequently-topless wife having marital difficulties, until the man sleeps with a buxom girl from a neighboring villa, after which point the two women get naked and frolic on the beach. It's all directed with utter solemnity and is meant to be terribly serious and meaningful, but is deadly dull and laughably pretentious. Though one of the two women is quite a looker, the explicit nudity and sex are the least erotic element of any of the three films in this collection. Antonioni should be ashamed to let his career go out with such a whimper.
As a total package, Eros is a mixed bag, but two out of the three shorts are genuinely worth seeking out even if the third, the impetus behind the project, should best be forgotten. With some expansion, the Wong segment could have made its own wonderful feature film.
Warner Home Video brings Eros to DVD in the United States several months after the film was released in a decent all-region NTSC edition by Mei Ah in Hong Kong. Comparing the two discs led to an interesting discovery: the Antonioni segment is presented in a very different version.
Most shockingly, the entire short film has been dubbed into Italian even though it was originally shot with the actors speaking English. It has also been edited differently, with a little over two minutes of footage removed, including some erotic content. The scene of the sexy neighbor girl rolling around on the bed fingering herself has been truncated by 30 seconds, and the subsequent scene of she and the main character having sex is a minute shorter. No specific objectionable acts were "censored", per se; it's just that both have been condensed. Two later scenes have had their order shuffled (the new structure actually works a little better), with some minor trimming as well.
I did not see Eros theatrically and cannot confirm which version played in theaters. In comparison to the previous DVD, I'm of mixed feeling about the changes here. Although the dubbing is very obvious and distracting, the original actors were so bad that the dubbing performances are slightly less awful. As for the footage removed, anything that makes this Antonioni film end faster may be a blessing. Then again, the nudity is pretty much the only thing enjoyable about it in the first place, so it hurts a little to see some of that go.
As far as I could tell, neither the Wong nor Soderbergh films have been altered.
Here's what I originally said about the Hong Kong DVD:
Picture quality is a little bit variable among the three segments, but on the whole is quite satisfying. All three parts are presented in 1.78:1 widescreen with anamorphic enhancement. The Hand is very sharp and detailed, with no noticeable edge enhancement. Colors are strong though the black level is perhaps a little light. Equilibrium varies from the vibrant blue of the dream content to a flat black & white during the psychiatrist session. Both look good, but a slight bit of edge ringing is visible in one or two shots. The Dangerous Thread of Things has the blandest photography, mostly standard travelogue-type scenery of the Italian settings, which are pretty but dull. Edge enhancement artifacts rear their head the most here, yet are still not unbearable.
The transfer on this Warner DVD is significantly different. For one thing, it's quite a bit darker. Colors are slightly more saturated, but shadow detail is often obscured and contrasts are very dull. The image is also much softer and more filtered, which eliminates the edge ringing but loses a lot of detail and texture, especially during the Wong segment. The small improvement in colors and flesh tones does not fully compensate for the other deficiencies in this disappointing video transfer.
The movie's soundtrack is available only in Dolby Digital 5.1 (the Hong Kong disc also had DTS). Volume is set very low by default, however once amplified the Wong film has a rich musical presence and subtly enveloping surround ambience. The Soderbergh piece is mostly dialogue, all intelligible and recorded well. Antonioni attempts the most aggressive surround experimentation, featuring several songs whose lyrics flutter discretely across the rear soundstage. Fidelity on this Dolby Digital track is not quite as nice as the previous edition's DTS, but is acceptable.
The Wong segment is spoken entirely in Mandarin, and in the version presented here the Antonioni short is dubbed into Italian. Both have permanent English subtitles burned into the picture. The Soderbergh piece was shot in English.
Optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also available. For the Wong and Antonioni films the French or Spanish subs appear at the top of the picture while the English subs remain burned into the bottom.
The disc has only two bonus features. The first is a theatrical trailer that makes the film look like a Cinemax After Dark softcore porno.
Of more significance is the Antonioni short film Michelangelo Eye to Eye, produced in 2004. The gimmick of the short is that, through cinematic trickery, it depicts the director himself walking through the Church of San Pietro in Vincola to visit the statue of Michelangelo's Moses (thus bringing one Michelangelo face to face with another), even though in real life Antonioni has been confined to a wheelchair for the past 20 years. I'm sure that for a 90-year-old man without the use of half his body this must seem like wondrous wish fulfillment, but to the viewer it plays as 20 agonizing minutes of watching an old man stand around a museum staring at stuff. If the director was really so fascinated by the sculptures there, he would have been better served taking some still photos and putting together a nice coffee table book.
No ROM supplements have been provided.
Even if not all of its parts work as well as intended, Eros is an interesting collection of short films worth owning for the Wong and Soderbergh entries alone. Unfortunately, the official Region 1 DVD presents an oddly dubbed and truncated version of one of the short films, and has a very disappointing video transfer. Meanwhile, the all-region NTSC Hong Kong release contains an uncut version of the film, better video, and a nice DTS track. That Mei Ah release merits a recommendation, but I can only advise a rental for the Warner disc.
Eros (Hong Kong release)
Zhou Yu's Train