EROS (Michelangelo Antonioni, 2004)

Eros is a composite film consisting of three short films, two by admirers of Michelangelo Antonioni and the last by Antonioni himself. The first two films in the package, by Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-Wai and the U.S.’s Steven Soderbergh, are both excellent. Wong’s “The Hand,” strikingly and sensitively acted by Chen Chang and Gong Li, glimpses a young tailor’s infatuation for a woman whose dresses he makes. “Miss Hua,” who begins as an imperious, high-priced call girl, ends as a prostitute soliciting tricks in the rain-soaked streets. Soderbergh’s “Equilibrium,” mostly in gorgeous black and white (the cinematographer is Peter Andrews), involves a dream within a dream within a film, which is another layer of dream, in one dream of which a 1950s advertising executive opens his head to a psychotherapist who is constantly distracted by something he sees outside his office window, unbeknownst to his patient, who is reclining on a couch with his eyes shut. This very funny piece, beautifully acted by Robert Downey Jr. and Alan Arkin, is the best thing that Soderbergh has done since Kafka (1991). Painted interludes, scored by Caetano Veloso, bridge one segment to the next.

As is typical of this sort of composite work, the best is saved for last, and it is to that amazing film that I wish to direct your attention. Written by Antonioni and longtime collaborator Tonino Guerra, it is called “The Dangerous Thread of Things” (“Il filo pericoloso delle cose”), and it is based on a short story in Antonioni’s 1983 collection, That Bowling Alley on the Tiber River. It is from this book that Antonioni drew episodes for his wondrous Beyond the Clouds (Al di là delle nuvole, 1995). Antonioni made “The Dangerous Thread of Things” when he was 92 years old. He directed it from a wheelchair, to which a stroke has confined him. One never knows, of course, but it probably will prove to be his last film. It’s a brilliant piece of work.

It is full of female nudity, including full frontal nudity, and partial nudity. This, along with a closing hint of incipient lesbianism (what is the world coming to?), has had most American reviewers up in arms (and breasts, and what-have-you). Some have even resorted to the language “soft-core porn,” although there isn’t a pornographic shot—not one—anywhere in the film. (Show a particular kind of man a woman’s beard on screen and he becomes silly.) If the filmmaker is in his 90s, the filmmaker to certain over-exercised minds must be a “dirty old man.”

The truth is this: Younger folk often go a little batty when forced to identify their elders with sex and sexuality. In this uproarious critical circumstance, though, the “younger folk” are in their forties, fifties and sixties! So now, as though he doesn’t have enough challenges, Antonioni has become the bogeyman for their queasiness. And, too, some of these reviewers get a chance to pump up their own importance by taking a swipe at the world’s greatest living filmmaker. Mr. Ebert: Cock up, or cock down?

There is something else that “younger folk” get a little touchy about besides the sexuality of their elders: mortality. Antonioni’s “The Dangerous Thread of Things” achingly invests a love story with his own mortal thoughts—a love story that is populated by young persons. In a sense, one may call “The Dangerous Thread of Things” an end-of-love story.

The two main characters are Christopher and Chloë. They reside in the beauteous country. (Antonioni’s color cinematographer is Marco Pontecorvo, son of director Gillo Pontecorvo.) They are a bickering couple. Christopher clings to the relationship, which he wants to continue—as does Chloë, intermittently, so long as Christopher changes his outlook a little. At one point, as they walk together outdoors, Christopher remarks that the two of them should be having sex right now. Chloë counters, “Sex is more than you think it is.”

Two sights that the out-of-sort lovebirds espy enmesh them in “the dangerous thread of things,” in all probability unraveling their future as a couple. One is a distant vision that seems to have strayed from the pristine dream passage in Antonioni’s Il deserto rosso (The Red Desert, 1964). Two women or girls, or possibly fantastic nymphs, appear amidst a massive formation of shelves of rock through which cascades pour down. The other appears through the window of a restaurant at which Christopher and Chloë are having lunch. It is a young woman on horseback. Christopher is immediately enthralled; tactlessly he asks his partner if she knows who the other woman is. (Guys!) As it happens, Chloë does. She tells him that the woman is their neighbor; she lives in the tower opposite their own home. On his own, Christopher adventures to the tower, whose architectural structure implies a visual connection with the massive rock formation through which water cascaded. To get to the front door, Christopher must mount a trail of steep steps, and yet, at the same time, because the stairway is cloaked in darkness even in daylight, it is as if he were entering a cave.

The woman, Linda, is ebullient. While Christopher investigates the structure of the building and takes in the captivating view from the roof of the tower, Linda sheds her clothes and masturbates in bed. A stunning cut evokes Linda’s orgasm; as Christopher looks down from the tower’s highest point, the camera precipitously drops—a moment when this viewer’s heart nearly knocked out of his bones and flesh. When Linda and Christopher do have sex moments later, it is (forgive) anticlimactic. It is also anticlimactic, of course, because it is precisely the sex that Christopher had earlier wanted to have with Chloë—carefree sex to which Christopher need bring nothing more than an eager cock.

Little about Linda recommends her as a real woman—a complex human being, like Chloë. The image of her on horseback; her unbridled sensuality: she is less human than a creature, a projection, a touchstone of desire. She is thus connected to the earlier two “water nymphs.” At the end of the film, when Christopher at least claims he is in Paris, Linda reclines on the beach, and the terribly beautiful shot shows her, as she does this, sinking into her own shadow. When Chloë comes across her, Chloë’s shadow crosses Linda, and the two look at one another and in some sense come together, one standing over the other. Fadeout. While sex to Christopher exists purely in the moment, for Chloë it is measured against eternity, disclosing the burden of mortal awareness that, as a more caring and mature individual, she brings to sex, creating what Christopher does his best to avoid: complicity; true intimacy. Into his images, Antonioni compresses profound heartache.

I have a theory about that wonderful title, “The Dangerous Thread of Things.” I believe that Antonioni (fittingly) had in mind one of Robert Browning’s Italy poems, “Two in the Campagna.” The whole 1855 love poem applies, but the unifying image is an elusive thread—because elusive, a something that unthreads the whole concept of unity: “For me, I touched a thought, I know,/ Has tantalized me many times/ . . . for rhymes/ To catch at and let go./ Help me to hold it! . . ./ Just when I seemed about to learn!/ Where is the thread now? Off again!/ The old trick!/ Only[,] I discern—/ Infinite passion, and the pain/ Of finite hearts that yearn.”

Michelangelo Antonioni. We are lucky to have someone in his nineties still making movies. (Right now, at 99, Portugal’s prolific Manoel de Oliveira is making a film!) We are especially lucky to have this one still making movies.

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