Almost ten years ago, Time Magazine had featured an article of ten great international films from the late 80s to early 90s that had (up to the publishing date) not been released in the U.S. There were two films on the list that were also very high on my wish list: Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Beyond the Clouds. With the advent of DVD, I was finally able to see these films and while the former was every bit of the masterpiece that I had imagined it to be, I found the latter, particularly in the early encounters, to be something akin to a thinly veiled softcore porn film in the guise of high art. While I appreciated the hopefulness of Patricia (Fanny Ardant) and Carlo’s (Jean Reno) reluctant, heartbroken encounter, and was even quietly moved by the star-crossed romanticism of Niccolo’s (Vincent Perez) attempt to woo the young woman in the church (Irène Jacob) in the final episode, I could not help but find the early anonymous encounter sequences between Carmen (Inés Sastre) and the impeccably coiffed, Armani-suited sewage engineer Silvano (Kim Rossi-Stuart) as well as between the uncharismatic American director (John Malkovich) and oversexed bohemian (Sophie Marceau) to be unnecessarily gratuitous, chagrining, ponderously self-important, and ridiculously laughable.
When Michelangelo Eye to Eye was released in 2004, it seemed as though Antonioni had begun to evolve this more immoderately voyeuristic phase into something a bit more distanced, formalist, and relevant. Alas, this evolution isn’t entirely perceptible in his short film installment for the triptych Eros entitled The Dangerous Thread of Things. Replete with overt sexual metaphors (a middle-aged man squeezes his Maserati convertible between the narrow gateway of their villa entrance as he and his gauze-draped, translucently dressed, brassiere-less wife ponder the loss of marital spark in their relationship) and ridiculously contrived situations that invariably lead to female nudity and anonymous sex with a young woman on horseback who lives in a tower, the glimmer of hope for an artistic resurgence that seemed possible with Michelangelo Eye to Eye seems once again out of reach.
Steven Soderbergh’s Equilibrium is a deceptively facile and compact, permutative story of déjà-vu. Retrospectively set in the 1950s as an overworked electronics salesman (Robert Downey Jr.) becomes haunted by an erotic dream of a mysterious woman in a blue dress, the film is an adept exposition on recurrence and the permeability of reality and dreams.
Wong Kar-wai’s installment, The Hand is the first film of Eros and is also the strongest work in the series. Told through a series of elliptically fractured, episodic snapshots of the long-term, working relationship between a renowned courtesan (Gong Li) and her personal couturière, a sexually inexperienced tailor named Zhang (Chen Chang) through changing fortunes, ill-fated love affairs, personal betrayals, and the ravages of time, Wong is able to create an atmosphere of charged eroticism in the seemingly paradoxical and counter-intuitive act of dressing a woman. Distilling the essence of the innate intimacy in their unspoken ritual, Wong retains the imbued sensuality of In the Mood for Love and 2046 to create an equally understated and voluptuous tale of transfigured desire.
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