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.
Melinda and Melinda throws Woody Allen's two cents into the alternative-reality forum. Two playwrights, one tragic and the other comic, are sitting in a New York bistro arguing their respective Weltanschauungs, when a tablemate proposes to tell a true story, and let the playwrights decide whether it's a tragedy or a comedy. We ourselves don't hear the story, beyond the first step of a woman arriving unannounced at an apartment door during a dinner party. Dissolve to the end of the story, and each playwright now gets to put his own spin on it, taking turns reeling out the plotline. The two tales are enacted by completely separate casts, excepting Radha Mitchell, the alternative Melindas. Like most of Allen's films, even at his lowest ebb, this one has a clear point of inspiration, an idea, a concept, a conceit. But it's a little more of a challenge than usual, a hard job with no easy solution, and what's certain is that Allen wasn't up to it: an empty structure waiting to be furnished. Though there are, for sure, some clever permutations of shared elements (the single-malt Scotch, the magic lamp, the eligible dentist), the two stories seem insufficiently differentiated, even down to their smothering buttery light: the tragic insufficiently intense, the comic insufficiently funny. It is sometimes, as we switch back and forth, hard to remember which is which; and ultimately hard to imagine, as the plotlines diverge, what the "true" story could originally have been. The whole thing feels a bit monotonous, and yet -- the strength of the structure -- we keep hanging on to see where it's headed. (My own wish would have been for the "real" Melinda to turn up at the bistro at the end, looking inscrutably different from either version. I didn't get my wish.) Mitchell, in what might have been a virtuoso role for a Meryl Streep or a Judy Davis, is herself insufficiently differentiated: kinkier hair and more cigarettes for tragedy. Put more harshly, she reveals not much range and not much personality. Will Ferrell, assigned to the comedy section, takes home the booby prize, however, for the most slavish imitation of Woody Allen (not on screen in this one). Chloë Sevigny, on the opposite hand, as a "Park Avenue Princess" in the tragedy section, manages to do with Allen's dialogue what she did also with Whit Stillman's in The Last Days of Disco, and what no one else can quite do: sound perfectly natural. (Isn't it about time, seven years after Disco, for the next Whit Stillman film?) Brooke Smith, even while slipping now and again into a recognizable Allen cadence, does pretty well, too. And Chiwetel Ejiofor, of Dirty Pretty Things, uses his deep-dish eyes to prove himself as sympathetic a charmer here as a worrier there.
In My Country takes up the South African apartheid problem after its solution, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the mid-Nineties offered amnesty to political criminals, provided they could demonstrate a political motive for their crimes, in exchange for their public confession and confrontation of their victims. Juliette Binoche plays an Afrikaner with a conscience (also with a pleasanter French accent), a poet who is covering the hearings on the radio; and Samuel L. Jackson plays a reporter for The Washington Post, an African-American who, over a century removed from slavery, is covering the hearings with a hotter head and infinite impatience: "How can it be news," he fumes over the placement of his stories on an inside page, "when the victims are black?" Their different approaches to a common concern form the rocky foundation of an intimate relationship; and it's the relationship, in fact, that forms the foundation of the film. Director John Boorman, long interested in the chasms between people, is not one to shy away from the Big Theme -- the plundering of the Amazon jungle in The Emerald Forest, the Burmese bloodbath of the late-Eighties in Beyond Rangoon -- but he has heretofore preferred to couch the theme in a tale of adventure, which, if it doesn't quite muffle the message, at least affords ample opportunity for his voracious camera eye. The mounted animal heads on the walls of an unapologetic torturer (Brendan Gleeson) will not serve as an example of that; still less will the talky, table-and-chairs tribunal scenes. But the photography by Seamus Deasy is handsome all the same, warm and lustrous; and the lovely leisure moment of Binoche and her black sound technician out on the dance floor, in perfect union, grants a fleeting glimpse of utopia; and the partings at the end really do tug at your heart. These people have gone through something together, and at the far side of it they go their separate ways.