Three Directors Look for Eros-The Search, Seductively Obscure

More auteurist than erotic, Eros consists of three short films directed by Wong Kar Wai, Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni. With a title like that on a marquee, the film’s target audience (read: literate letches), hardly needs any reviews to encourage them to sample the wares. As it happens, I caught Eros at one of my neighborhood theatres, which managed to show the film without putting the suggestive title on its marquee.

From what I had gleaned from the reviews prior to seeing the film, Wong Kar Wai’s segment, The Hand, was an unalloyed masterpiece; Mr. Soderbergh’s Equilibrium was labeled a virtually sexless farce; and as for The Dangerous Thread of Things, the entry from Mr. Antonioni-well, it’s been dismissed as everything from incoherent to downright senile. Since Mr. Antonioni, at 92 years old, is perhaps the world’s greatest living director, and since even in his prime he was never the easiest film artist to appreciate, I made a special effort to look for hidden subtexts. After all, I’ve been credited with (or blamed for) coining the critical epithet “Antoni-ennui” in a moment of impatience with what I once perceived as the director’s meditative meanderings-and which I later reassessed as the expression of a profoundly justified pessimism engendered by the spiritual sterility of the modern world. Indeed, Mr. Antonioni declared back in the mid-60′s that eroticism was the “disease of our time.” Yet even then he seemed focused more on alienation than on eroticism, and this is still true of his latest work. But as I indicated at the outset, Eros comes nowhere near meeting the challenge of its title when compared to the increasingly lewd standards of our current cinema. If we stipulate that full frontal nudity and graphically simulated sexual activity are the minimal requirements for a certifiably erotic spectacle, Mr. Kar Wai’s story has none of the former, and only one intense scene of manual stimulation to represent the latter (and to justify the segment’s title). Mr. Soderbergh has only a few sexless displays of the former and none of the latter, while Mr. Antonioni’s segment is comparatively lavish in both categories.

Still, the advance buzz on the film is accurate in judging Mr. Kar Wai’s effort as the highlight of the three, even though it’s less erotic than passionately romantic in its depiction of the lifelong relationship between an apprentice tailor named Zhang (Chang Chen) and a proud courtesan named Miss Hua (Gong Li). Zhang’s specialty is designing the kind of elaborate skin-tight gown that Mr. Kar Wai has made his personal stylistic signature in previous films (with the collaboration of costume designer William Chang). The way Mr. Kar Wai’s women walk and breathe while attired in such garments is the essence of the director’s kinetic sensuality.

To motivate Zhang to outdo himself in his designs for her wardrobe-an essential element of her profession-Miss Hua undoes his trousers and inserts her hand in the general vicinity of the bulge inside. The expressive way that the director conveys the orgasmic awakening of the repressed Zhang’s libido is like nothing I have seen in all my depraved days and nights of moviegoing. The amazing thing about this sequence is that it is not at all sordid or sleazy, but is instead exquisitely eloquent in nailing down Zhang’s lifelong devotion to Miss Hua.

I never recommend that anyone walk out on a movie in the middle, much less the one-third mark, but in retrospect, it might’ve been better for the producers of Eros to have ended with The Hand-that is, if they were expecting many people to see it in the first place. As it is, Mr. Soderbergh’s contribution projects a radically opposing mood to Mr. Kar Wai’s lyrical sadness.

In Equilibrium, Robert Downey Jr. plays Nick Penrose, an advertising executive afflicted with a recurring erotic dream of a mysterious temptress (a sometimes nude Ele Keats). On his wife’s suggestion, Nick consults her psychiatrist, Alan Arkin’s antic Dr. Pearl-why else hire Mr. Arkin if he’s not going to be antic? The bulk of the film is an extended visual sight gag of the seemingly inattentive Dr. Pearl so bored by Nick’s talky problem that he begins trying to pick up a woman in the building across from his office, eventually communicating with her by hurling paper airplanes through his open window. One can argue (and most reviewers have) that it’s a bit late in the day for psychiatrist jokes-and besides, the physical logistics of Dr. Pearl’s pick-up are mind-boggling. Still, I enjoyed watching two of my favorite actors engaged in a pleasant, if prolonged, vaudeville routine, with Mr. Arkin as the clown and Mr. Downey as the straight man. There are a couple of odd switcheroo casting surprises at the end of Equilibrium, but these are of little help and less relevance to what has gone before.

Nonetheless, Mr. Soderbergh is reportedly the one person responsible for the film being released at all. According to Nathan Lee’s sensitive review of Eros (in the April 8-10 weekend edition of The New York Sun), Mr. Soderbergh confided in his “director’s statement” that “I wanted to be on a poster with Michelangelo Antonioni.” As funny and ridiculous as this may sound, there is something nostalgically nouvelle-vague-ish about Mr. Soderbergh’s acknowledgement of his illustrious predecessor. (Think of François Truffaut and Jean Renoir or Claude Chabrol and Fritz Lang as precedents). Certainly Ocean’s Twelve (2004) can be forgiven if the profits therein gave Mr. Soderbergh enough clout with Warner Bros. and its “art” subsidiary to have them honor his ultra-auteurish whim.

If Mr. Antonioni’s The Dangerous Thread of Things isn’t particularly hard to sit through, it’s because the scenic backgrounds are far more compelling than the pathetic human figures in the foreground. Much of the overfamiliar dialogue of disenchantment between man and woman is delivered ritualistically, as if merely to decorate the director’s dead-end camera movements around a breathtakingly beautiful setting, with two shores on opposite sides of a circular dilemma. And what do all the horses mean? And the two nude look-alike women who just stare at each other? I am prepared to say that Mr. Antonioni knows and feels more about the answers than I do.

U.N. in Crisis

The Interpreter … wow! A real honest-to-goodness Hollywood thriller with two Oscar-winning celebrities, Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, in the lead roles! It’s good to know that the old Hollywood studio machine is in operation again. Or is it?

Here are the detailed credits from the production notes: “Universal Pictures presents The Interpreter, a Working Title production in association with Misher Films and Mirage Entertainment of a Sydney Pollack film, produced by Working Title’s Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner and Kevin Misher. The film is directed by Sydney Pollack, with a screenplay written by Charles Randolph ( The Life of David Gale) and Scott Frank ( Minority Report) and Steven Zaillian ( Schindler’s List), from a story by Martin Stellman and Brian Ward. Academy Award nominee Catherine Keener ( Being John Malkovich) co-stars. Executive producers are Pollack, Anthony Minghella ( Cold Mountain) and G. Mac Brown ( Unfaithfu l). Liza Chasin and Debra Hayward co-produce.”

(We can pause for breath here.) “Collaborating with Pollack in capturing this world of global diplomacy and power on screen are director of photography Darius Khondji ( Panic Room, Seven); production designer Jon Hutman ( Something’s Gotta Give, The Horse Whisperer); costume designer Sarah Edwards ( Uptown Girls, Igby Goes Down); and editor William Steinkamp, Pollack’s collaborator on such films as Tootsie and Out of Africa. James Newton Howard ( The Village, Collateral) serves as composer.”

When one recalls that the credits preceding the screening of a Hollywood movie were once not supposed to exceed one minute in running time, we can see that there are now many more cooks stirring or spoiling the broth than before, and that they have to be carefully recruited from a pool of unattached specialists once the green light is on-usually after bankable stars like Ms. Kidman and Mr. Penn have been cast. There are no movie studios anymore with contract players and production facilities for assembly lines. The moguls of old have been replaced with business-school graduates obsessed only with the bottom line. This is secured largely by opening wide on a weekend, preferably with a franchise film-a sequel or remake-in an effort to cash in on previous successes.

The result is the worst of all possible worlds: fewer and worse pictures. I am talking now, of course, of big-budget movies with big stars and big publicity campaigns. A vacuum has been created as far as thoughtful moviegoers are concerned-one that is being filled more and more by small independent and foreign-language films, and even nonfiction works of increasing range and audacity.

And so in this dismal context comes The Interpreter, a film that seems more in tune with the post-9/11 zeitgeist than most of its conventional competition. Mr. Pollack has always had a flair for big subjects with a modicum of dramatic intimacy. He hasn’t always been successful, and it would be a stretch to suggest that he is here. But the fact remains that I was steadily absorbed by The Interpreter, even though much of the plot didn’t make a great deal of sense. Many reviewers have seized on the fact that there were five writers associated with the script-and that doesn’t include all the producers and executive producers, whose previous creative involvement must have entitled them to some input on the final shape of the production. But I found all the chaos and confusion surrounding the anticipated assassination of an evil African leader in the U.N. building to be consistent with the real-life media commentaries from that region.

Still, what struck me most about the film was that Ms. Kidman was billed above Mr. Penn, and that it was apparent early on that the characters they played would be kept apart romantically for fear that reviewers would chortle at this kind of happy ending. Much has been made of the fact that Mr. Pollack was able to secure permission to film inside the U.N. building, whereas the same permission was denied Alfred Hitchcock for his 1959 thriller North by Northwest, with Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason. Yet there is no authentic interior shot in The Interpreter that is as memorable as Hitch’s mock-up scene of Grant being implicated in the murder of a diplomat who is killed while he’s talking to him.

Ms. Kidman’s Silvia Broome, a U.N. interpreter who overhears on an open mike that someone is planning to assassinate an African head of state, bears some resemblance to the many innocent bystanders in Hitchcock films who find themselves either mistrusted or pursued by the police at the same time that they are menaced by the villains. Hitchcock didn’t much like the police-a luxury that movies cannot afford after 9/11. Hence, there is never any suggestion that Mr. Penn’s federal agent, Tobin Keller, and his partner, Dot Woods (Catherine Keener), are the slightest bit untrustworthy as they question Silvia about what she heard with a degree of skepticism on their parts. Here, the moral aspects of the situation get somewhat tangled and trivialized, as it appears that all the federal agents are worried about is the bad publicity that will result for the city and their agencies after a successful assassination at the U.N. By inventing an imaginary country, Matobo, and an imaginary language, Ku, the filmmakers avoid the obvious problems inherent in trying to ground the plot’s events in the rapidly shifting political situation of real African nations (Ku sounds like Coo, but we never see it in print). As for what is actually going on in that fictional African country somewhere south of the Sahara, your guess is as good as mine, though very early on it appears that Silvia Broome is deeply involved in all the intrigue and is not the innocent interpreter she appears at first glance.

The real suspense is how Ms. Kidman’s character can remain interesting and complicated without crossing the line into violent behavior and turning Mr. Penn’s federal agent against her. Her too-frequently-idealistic speeches in defense of the U.N. as the last hope of mankind (and womankind) soon sound like rhetorical alibis meant to cover her own less-than-peaceful agenda for the region. Not that it’s easy to separate the Good African and Bad African factions here, particularly when a white villain with impeccable African credentials is thrown into the mix to botch the ultimate assassination attempt for no discernibly logical reason.

But Mr. Pollack has already gotten the movie’s big thrill onscreen with a bizarre bus bombing in Brooklyn that claims the lives of a federal agent and a well-meaning African intermediary from Matobo. Despite all the frantic federal cell-phone and helicopter activity, a bus is shown exploding, with most of its passengers killed. That is the movie’s big payoff to sustain our post-9/11 paranoia, and it makes up for all the gaping holes in the plot.

But there is still the big task of keeping Ms. Kidman and Mr. Penn from flying into each other’s arms after all the bad guys-however murky their motivations-have been disposed of. And for this, all the writers and executive producers in the world couldn’t have come up with a sillier back story. The federal agent’s errant wife dies in a car accident with her lover and, paradoxically, leaves Mr. Penn’s Tobin Keller emotionally paralyzed by grief. The bereaved or martially troubled husband has become a hackneyed cop cliché-the kind you’ve seen in all the prime-time crime dramas. It enables the male detective to act up a storm without any danger of being upstaged by the actress playing his wife. Now that’s what’s known as having your grief and milking it, too.

There is one clear sign of the filmmakers’ liberal tendencies, and that’s their decision to make the French U.N. ambassador (Jacques Sebag) the face and voice of international concern over the genocidal crimes committed in Matobo by President Zuwanie (Earl Cameron)-and this while the American delegation is shown shilly-shallying on the issue, to boot. As a registered Francophile of long standing-especially when it comes to France’s glorious cinematic traditions (see the upcoming A Tout de Suite for a current example)-I have to confess that I didn’t mind the bias.