"Eros," the new omnibus film that includes short movies by three world- renowned directors, stands perhaps as a testament not so much to the cinematic appeal of erotic love but rather to the lasting worldwide influence of contributor Michelangelo Antonioni and the deep affection for his work felt by younger directors Wong Kar-Wai and Steven Soderbergh.
The Italian-born Antonioni, 92, is regarded as one of the most potent forces behind what is now known as "art cinema," for such films as "L'Avventura," "The Red Desert" and "Blow-Up." A series of health problems has curbed his mobility and speech, but his creative drive has not been diminished.
When Antonioni wanted to make another film, his condition precluded him from undertaking a full-length feature, which led to the idea of a compilation of three shorts.
Frenchman Raphael Berdugo, among the group of producers who brought the project together, explained the origins of "Eros": "When Antonioni's not shooting a film he's not feeling so good," Berdugo said by telephone from Paris. "His life is making films. He had an idea that could last something like 30 minutes. Of course, 30 minutes is not an easy film to market. Then came the idea to contact two young directors who had already declared Antonioni as a guiding light."
Speaking at a press conference in Tokyo this past February, Hong Kong-based filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai, widely considered among the finest directors working today, said, "It was a great honor for me to be able to work with the man who has taught me how fascinating cinema could be. Like the works of Hitchcock and Fellini, Mr. Antonioni's work opened my mind. It was the way his story is told in visual terms -- so much is conveyed via the silence and the stare."
The director as mime
The three films were created independent of one another, with each filmmaker working on his own. Antonioni's segment was the first to be shot.
"It was very fascinating," explained Berdugo, who was present on the set. "He was in a wheelchair, and he couldn't really talk. He could pronounce a few words, mostly yes or no, but as he is Italian he can speak with his hands.
"He asked people to take him to all the spots where he wanted to shoot and decided the placement of the camera. He would answer yes or no to specific questions, and he explained his ideas with his hands, like mime. People understood him. He was very clear about what was in his mind."
The producers behind the film originally approached Wong and Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar to make the other two segments.
For Wong to shoot his short in Shanghai, as he planned, the Chinese board of censors had to approve the scripts for all three sections, and Almodovar's script was rejected. As all the parties involved tried to come up with a solution, Almodovar's window of availability closed, and the filmmaker left the "Eros" project to undertake his own "Bad Education."
At the 2002 Venice Film Festival, the producers approached American director Soderbergh.
"It was pretty straightforward," Soderbergh said, speaking on the phone from Ohio. "They said, 'This is the title; this is the concept. You can do whatever you want as long as it costs this much.'
"Which, in a way, is the worst thing somebody can say to you. It took months and months for me to figure out what I wanted to do. I pursued a lot of other ideas before I settled on this one. It took awhile."
While Wong and Antonioni turned in films that capture the languid, dreamy, emotionally charged style of Antonioni's classic period, Soderbergh's piece is a talky, off-kilter comedic riff on the meaning of dreams. It was shot in five days.
"Our segment was really designed, from the beginning, to be the sorbet between the two heavy meals," Soderbergh said. "And I was really happy to have that position because frankly none of the ideas I was thinking about were serious. That made me feel like I wouldn't be competing with two filmmakers whose work I like a lot. And I thought it would be fun to make a movie that's supposed to be erotic that stars Alan Arkin and Robert Downey Jr."
Soderbergh had met Antonioni once before, sitting across from him at a dinner for previous awards winners at the Cannes Film Festival in the late 1990s. A longtime fan, Soderbergh said he swiped the director's place card from the table as a keepsake.
"Part of the appeal of this to me was to meet him again and have some more contact with him," Soderbergh said. "He's still all there."
Without being morbid about it, there is simply no way to avoid the fact that this could quite possibly be Antonioni's final work. The care and devotion put into the project by his collaborators could be seen as their way of assisting a master in finishing his career on a valedictory note.
"It didn't take on that air, as far as I was concerned," said Soderbergh. "After spending some time with him, that never really occurred to me. It certainly seemed like he was not stopping. He didn't seem near the end of anything to me."