Omnibus or composite or anthology films (call them what you will), in particular those whose individual segments are handled by different directors, have gone out of fashion since the days when a Godard, a Chabrol, a Demy, a Truffaut, a Malle, a Rossellini, a Pasolini would be happy to toss a little something into a pot together with his equals and his inferiors. Directors of that stature today do not seem inclined to share the spotlight, or to line up for head-to-head comparison. Perhaps that's understandable when you notice how often it is that the fractional scale of such work inspires only a fractional effort by the filmmaker. More frankly, a half-hearted, a half-baked effort.
I have been racking my brains for anything to stack up to the new Eros (at the Ken for the next week), which apportions approximately a third of its under-two-hour running time to each of three significant figures from the world of cinema, Wong Kar-wai, Steven Soderbergh, and the nonagenarian Michelangelo Antonioni, who took part in an another anthology film more than fifty years ago, Love in the City, and who was the cornerstone, the starting point, of this new one. You, or someone, might care to argue that the directors of New York Stories, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Coppola, could match that combined stature, standing on one another's shoulders. Or you might want to go back to the anthology heyday for the roster of Boccaccio '70, Fellini, Visconti, De Sica. No one, surely, would argue such a thing for the makers of Four Rooms, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Alexandre Rockwell, and Allison Anders, or for the makers of Twilight Zone: The Movie, Steven Spielberg, George Miller, John Landis, and Joe Dante, even allowing them to stack four against three. In any event, the multinational aspect of Eros makes it special. Erotique had that aspect, too, but Lizzie Borden, Monika Treut, and Clara Law are small fry. (Love and sex are common unifying themes of anthologies -- Love and Anger, Love at Twenty, Three Fables of Love, The Oldest Profession, etc. -- but maybe not as common as horror.) The more recent September 11 may have gathered together some big names -- Lelouch, Loach, Imamura, Sean Penn -- but the division into eleven segments inevitably diluted the talent pool and permitted no one the room to stretch.
Another way in which Eros sets itself apart, even from the competition of New York Stories and Boccaccio '70, is through the caliber of the work itself, quite separate from the eminence of the filmmakers. That's not to suggest it's all of a piece. Only one of the pieces is a keeper. The first one. The one that provides a full and satisfying moviegoing experience and leaves nothing to be desired. The one that's a meal in itself. The one that can stand alone. So, then, rather than take them in chronological order, let's get the discards out of the way first. "Equilibrium," the second episode, the Soderbergh episode, typifies the frivolity that tends to plague the anthology form -- the frivolity, and the half-heartedness. Set in the mid-Fifties, and shot for no good reason in noir-ish black-and-white (with color dream scenes), it depicts the first visit of an uptight Madison Avenue ad man (Robert Downey, Jr., uncomfortable in the period, as well as with the stagy dialogue) to a Freudian psychoanalyst (Alan Arkin) who doesn't let the session interfere with his own voyeuristic pursuits. In the end, Soderbergh plays a little trick on our perception of what's real and what's fantasy, but it's just a trick, and very little indeed. In the third episode, "The Dangerous Thread of Things," Antonioni serves up something heavier, an unappetizing chunk of abstruseness about a man bounced between his bristly wife and his busty neighbor. The alternative women wind up (symbolically, one supposes) in the same place at the same time and in the same activity, dancing naked on the beach. Although it thus continues the director's dirty-old-mannerism of drooling over shapely female flesh, the film is not the major embarrassment of Beyond the Clouds, largely because it's smaller. And Antonioni can still pick a location, can still see it, can still show it. A new generation, even so, is not apt to run right out and rent L'Avventura.
That leaves the first and best for last. Titled "The Hand," this one, for openers, ought to tide us over while we wait for Wong's latest feature, 2046, his quasi-sequel to In the Mood for Love, and it ought to reassure us at the same time that that film's more mature, more stable, more controlled, more sustained style was not a mirage. Wong appears to have climbed to a higher plane. And there is no sign of slacking off simply because this is but a fraction of a film. At a shade over forty-three minutes, it is easily the longest of the three segments. It is precisely as long as it needs to be. (Whereas his Chungking Express and Fallen Angels needed to braid together more than one storyline in order to reach the requisite feature-length.) It is as long, give or take, as Sherlock Jr. or Zero for Conduct or Simon of the Desert. It is a thing of beauty: not so much a story as a tone poem, or mood piece, on the enduring professional relationship of an inhibited tailor and a high-priced courtesan (the beauteous and sensuous Gong Li) whom he custom-fits in her finery, and who develops a Camille-like cough over time, and gravitates to the gutter. From the torrential rain of the opening shot to the scrambled time line and the Sixties period and the sliceable atmosphere of amorous longing, this is Wong's private universe. And the explicit modiste subject matter authorizes, if you please, the further elaboration of the dress fetish of In the Mood... , and rationalizes the filmmaker's hypersensitivity to fabric, pattern, texture, all captured in the blotted color of a Degas pastel, temperate greens, grays, browns. The two ensuing segments may drag down the film. That is, they may drag down Eros. But they don't dirty "The Hand." "The Hand" is untouched. Had I been watching it at home on DVD, I might have opted to re-watch that first segment immediately upon its conclusion. And if I can find the time to go back to the film in the following week, I'll be sure to walk out a third of the way through.