Designed to be a showcase for a new short erotic work by the still active 89 year-old director Michelangelo Antonioni, Eros was created to bring together similarly themed films by a couple of other great international directors influenced to some degree by master of Italian cinema - Wong Kar-Wai and Pedro Almódovar. Almódovar however was forced to withdraw from the project - officially in order to meet commitments to finish La Mala Educación, although it seems that the content of his script was not approved by the Chinese producers of the film - leaving Steven Soderbergh to take over the responsibility of delivering the third segment. By chance then, the film presents an intriguing look at the nature of eroticism from an Asian, an American and a European viewpoint.
The Hand - Wong Kar-Wai
While making a delivery of new costumes, a young tailor’s apprentice Xiao Zhang (Chang Chen) is introduced to the pleasures of the flesh at the hand of a beautiful courtesan, Miss Hua (Gong Li - magnificent). The young man finds inspiration in his obsession with Miss Hua and continues to make deliveries of her expensive handmade dresses. The courtesan however is conducting an affair with Mr Zhao, and starts to put off paying clients for this worthless man. As time progresses Zhang continues to deliver her dresses, only to witness the slow disintegration of this beautiful and exotic woman he has come to love.
Working very much in a style similar to his masterworks In The Mood For Love and 2046, Wong Kar-Wai’s contribution to Eros is clearly the stand-out episode of the three short films included here. The Hand is set in the same period as those earlier films, in 1960’s Hong Kong, with similar hotel locations, small rooms and narrow corridors, all decorated with period objects, meticulously coloured, lit and photographed by Christopher Doyle and set to an exquisite musical score. Even the character types and their mannerisms are very familiar by now, the unattainable object of desire between a man and a woman, the erotic tension expressed in the smallest of details and gestures, looks and expressions. Even though all these elements are familiar and employed elsewhere in his films, with the slightest of tweaks Wong Kar-Wai subtly changes the emphasis of the material towards the erotic, again showing himself to be the master of expressing the finer nuances of the emotions surrounding love and desire. If the film has any weakness, it is that the shorter length of the film compresses the time period and changing emotions that would be better suited to feature length and risks pushing Wong’s characteristic understatement over into overwrought melodrama.
Equilibrium - Steven Soderbergh
Nick Penrose (Robert Downey Jr.), a stressed out alarm-clock salesman in 1950’s New York, is having a recurrent erotic dream about a red-headed woman in a blue room. He visits a psychiatrist to find out what it all means and also to find out how to not wake up so soon before the dream ends. The psychiatrist Dr. Pearl (Alan Arkin), while listening to Penrose’s account of his dream, is also busy with something that has attracted his attention outside his window.
Apart from the attraction of the verbal sparring between Alan Arkin and Robert Downey Jr., there is little else to recommend in Soderbergh’s segment of Eros, almost all of it filmed noir style in black and white in a window-blind shaded psychiatrist’s room, though its take on eroticism is unconventional to say the least.
The Dangerous Thread of Things - Michelangelo Antonioni
A couple, Christopher and Chloe (Christopher Buchholz and Regina Nemni) are going through a difficult period in their relationship, which is lacking fire and erotic desire. The man finds that attraction and desire again in a young woman, Linda (Luisa Ranieri), who lives in a tower at the other side of the lake, but the freeing of those desires liberates each of the people involved in different ways that have unexpected consequences.
In contrast to the Asian passions of The Hand and the American psychoanalytic approach of Soderbergh, both of which to some extent sublimate erotic tension into gestures and creativity, Antonioni’s segment takes a wider European approach, taking eroticism away from just the body – although there is plenty of that seen in The Dangerous Thread of Things - and into the wider context of the world. With Antonioni the emotional content is equally within the beach and the lake and the tower as it is in the little gestures or body parts (specifically women with Antonioni obviously), that the camera zooms in to observe - the eroticism of these objects a further extension of the natural way of things. In this way frustration is objectified in the rolling of a glass on the ground, desire for a woman is a huge fortified tower, and anger is contained within the sharp corridor of tree branches which hook onto the clothes of the two characters carrying out an argument. As such, it is a perfect continuation and exploration of all things Antonionian, lacking only in the performances that show no imagination, a rather commonplace conflict situation explored through some unnecessarily expository dialogue post-dubbed into Italian, and embarrassingly banal scenes of nudity and sex.
Eros is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The dual-layer DVD is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
Transferred anamorphically at a ratio of 1.78:1, the image in all three segments is clear and stable, free from marks or any kind of digital artefacting. Colours however are perhaps not as vivid as they could be. Each of the films makes strong use of colour to express various emotional states, principally of love and desire, so this is evidently rather important to get right. Here, particularly in the Wong Kar-wai and Antonioni sections they look rather flatter and duller than they should, slightly hazy and lacking in contrast. Soderburgh’s largely black-and-white segment doesn’t suffer greatly from this, though the colour sections are also comparatively dull. A comparison with the transfer on the Mei Ah Hong Kong edition shows quite a different brightness, contrast and colour scheme (see Comparison section below).
There is a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes for the film. The soundtrack is mainly front and centre-based and rarely uses the rears except for the occasional sound effects and the music score. Rumbles of thunder and pouring rain are particularly enveloping on The Hand, but the voices are often less than clear with some noticeable hiss in the background. This would appear however to be an issue with the sound recording rather than with the transfer to DVD. The music score is clear and vibrant, standing out on the Wong Kar-wai and Antonioni segments.
English subtitles are included and are optional for the non-English language sections of the film only. Stephen Soderburgh’s Equilibrium is therefore not subtitled at all.
The only extra features included on this edition are brief Biographies for each of the filmmakers, covering their subjects, themes and the major works in their filmographies. A US Trailer (1:08), showing a sensuous montage of the three films set to the film score, is quite effective.
Comparison with Mei Ah Hong Kong Edition
Mei Ah’s 2-disc Region 0 release has some notable differences both in content and treatment. The most obvious difference is the use of an English language audio for Antonioni’s The Dangerous Thread of Things on the Mei Ah, while it is dubbed into Italian for the Artificial Eye edition. As ever with Italian films, the question of which version is the most authentic or effective is never clear and subject to individual choice. English is however clearly the actual language spoken by the actors on the set, lip-syncing perfectly where the Italian dub does not.
In terms of video quality, the Mei Ah transfer is also 1.78:1 anamorphic, but interlaced while the Artificial Eye is progressively encoded. On the Mei Ah this is noticeable in some blurring of movements and occasional breaking up of lines. The difference in tone and colour between the two editions is evident, the Mei Ah showing much clearer, natural colours and better shadow detail. The HK edition may however be slightly boosted for contrast or brightness, the whites in the black-and-white segments of Soderburgh’s section consequently looking rather glaring. Comparison screenshots for each of the three segments are provided below – Artificial Eye first, followed by the Mei Ah edition.
In addition to the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and in place of a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix, the Mei Ah release also has a DTS mix. Comparing the two releases side by side however, the Dolby Digital 5.1 on the Artificial Eye release is much stronger, vibrant and enveloping than the Mei Ah DTS track.
Mei Ah’s release also contains 30 minutes of interviews with Wong Kar-wai, Gong Li, and Chang Chen, discussing their involvement in the film, a longer Japanese trailer for the film and a Photo Gallery. These are all included on disc 2 of the 2-disc set.
Eros brings together three very different perspectives on love, attraction and erotic desire from three important directors. Wong Kar-Wai’s Asian outlook is sensuously tactile, passionate and sublimated, Soderbergh’s American approach, perhaps unsurprisingly sees eroticism as the inspiration for innovation and enterprise, while Antonioni’s film sees a broader, freer European take on the subject, the eroticism expressed beyond the confines of the characters into the world around them. Although the different perspectives on the subject are interesting and compliment each other well in their variety, only one of the films is truly successful as a short film – Wong Kar-Wai’s The Hand is as close to perfection as it is possible to achieve in terms of theme, content, performance and treatment. It alone makes Eros worth a look. Artificial Eye’s more or less barebones edition presents the film adequately, but perhaps not as well as it could be.