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Varieties of Love

(Warner Independent)

(Paramount Classics)

MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI, a master of masters, has contributed a short film to a trio of shorts called EROS. His film is “The Dangerous Thread of Things,” which is also the title of one of three brief prose pieces in a book of his. (The book itself is That Bowling Alley on the Tiber.) The pieces were adapted for the screen by Tonino Guerra, his collaborator since L’Avventura (1960). For any Antonioni enthusiast, and I insist on a place in the front rank, all this advance information was exciting. Regretfully, I add that the film is not.

First, some facts. In 1985 Antonioni had a stroke that paralyzed his right side and his power of speech. Nonetheless, in 1995 he made Beyond the Clouds, a four-part work, one part of which had substance and all of which was couched in his style. Reports and photos told us how he managed to command the shooting despite his handicaps--as well as the shooting of two subsequent short films. Now he presents this brief piece, made in 2004, when he was ninety-two. It has no substance and is only faintly reminiscent of his style.

A young husband and wife who live on the Tuscan coast are no longer close in feeling. When she sunbathes topless, he disregards her, somewhat deliberately. Later they drive off and stop at a waterfall where two naked girls are bathing. Then they go to a restaurant where the husband notices an attractive girl, who lives in an ancient tower near them, riding by on her horse. Next day he visits the tower, meets the girl, and they make love. Months pass. The husband is away in Paris. The wife walks on the beach one day, takes off her clothes, dances in the sea, and lies down. The girl comes along, strips, dances in the sea, and, nude, meets the nude wife.

This is a scenario out of which symbolic meaning might be inferred or on which it could be imposed. Throughout the film we long for the chance to do either. But Antonioni doesn’t provide it. For a viewer who could not be more sympathetic, the picture is merely studied and affected, without resonance, noteworthy only for the fact that, like some other aging male directors, Antonioni fills the screen with female nudity.

The disparity between this piece and his epoch-making films, together with his present physical condition, provokes a suspicion. His passion for work--he has often said that, for him, to live is to film--is perhaps being cosseted by some who want another piece by Antonioni for his name’s sake. What makes this new picture even more discomfiting is that there are two Antonioni features, The Mystery of Oberwald (1980) and Identification of a Woman (1982), that have never been released here. Neither is a major work in his career, but either of them is a feast compared with this latest scrap and would have been more welcome.

The other two short films in Eros are “The Hand” by Wong Kar-Wai and “Equilibrium” by Steven Soderbergh. Wong’s picture, set in 1960 in Hong Kong, is about a tailor’s apprentice and a famous courtesan, his awe of her and her utilization of it. The beautiful and gifted Gong Li, familiar from several Zhang Yimou films, is the languorous courtesan, and Chang Chen, familiar from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is the young man whom she leads into the world of sex. As always, Wong has the ability to incorporate environment in his story. The very walls of rooms, as his camera glides along them, seem erotic. Soderbergh’s picture, which has the feel of an extended revue sketch, is about a psychiatrist (Alan Arkin) and a patient of his (Robert Downey Jr.), an advertising man sorely beset by a heavy new assignment and by a recurrent dream about a woman. Arkin again supplies his middle-aged philosophic urbanity, and Downey, more talented than he is usually rated, keeps himself fraught. Soderbergh moves it all well, except that it doesn’t move to a satisfactory finish.

Both Wong and Soderbergh have understandably expressed their gratitude at, even in this tripartite way, being part of an Antonioni project. (A sort of theme song of the trilogy is actually called “Michelangelo Antonioni.”) But Eros is better for what they contribute than for his work.

Some adjectives lie in wait for certain films. For WINTER SOLSTICE, two of those adjectives are “little” and “quiet.” Josh Sternfeld has written and directed a picture about a widower and his two sons that begins and courses and finishes without ever blundering in its screenplay or its execution, and without stirring up anything like a strong emotional response.

This is Sternfeld’s third feature, the first that I have seen. A widower in his late forties is a landscape gardener in New Jersey who has just about recovered from his wife’s death in an accident five years earlier. He is now trying his best, his appealing best, to sustain a family feeling in the house, although his two boys, one around twenty and the other a few years younger, are reaching the point where the outside world looks more and more attractive. The father and sons go through the expected episodes of spat and reconciliation, of privacies tampered with, of fact-facing. Virtually everything that happens can be foreseen, including the arrival in the neighborhood of a personable single woman in her forties. The ending is not quite predictable; still, it grows so inevitably from the story that we almost feel we expected it.

What keeps the picture pleasant, first, is the cast. Anthony LaPaglia as the father, Aaron Stanford and Mark Webber as the two sons, Allison Janney as the woman: all are honest actors who shun cliché and are capable of nuance. The actors’ clear commitment to their characters helps greatly to hold us. Sternfeld not only deals empathically with his cast, he seems to know that his screenplay is not very novel or stirring; nonetheless, he wants to present these human beings in their skins, so to speak. It is as if he were telling us that just because what is happening in the house next door may be equally interesting, there’s no reason not to look at the people in this house.

Insofar as something so grand as a theme can be laid on Winter Solstice, perhaps it might be that, no matter how busily or affectionately we plan, life and time are making their way along as they choose. And, as we plan and plan, they are chuckling.