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Named loftily for the giant star at the center of the constellation Scorpius, Antares is yet another recent European film that plots an orderly cinematic microcosm: a group of seemingly independent bodies orbit each other, gradually drifting into alignment. Set in an unpicturesque Vienna by Austrian writer-director Götz Spielmann, the film tells three separate stories that become increasingly less distinct as they proceed. Just as in Amores Perros, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s sex-dogs-and-death triptych, the central unifying device is a car crash: Tomasz (Andreas Patton) is riding in a cab, admiring newly acquired nude snapshots, when the vehicle is rammed from the side; this impact triggers a rewind to the beginning of the film’s events.
Tomasz is a doctor making a brief call on Vienna to restart his purely sexual relationship with Eva (Petra Morze), a night-shift nurse. Eva is not conspicuously unhappy with husband Alfred (Hary Prinz) and their teenage daughter, but she’s drawn powerfully to Tomasz, whose tastes are mildly kinky—blindfolds, exhibitionism, and those photographs are the most of it. Though the couple’s lovemaking isn’t XXX-explicit, it would certainly rate an NC-17 from the Motion Picture Association of America. But bluntly depicted carnal encounters like Tomasz and Eva’s are increasingly common in European and Asian art films—a vogue that owes something to Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy. Like the lovers in that film, Antares’ adulterers look real: They’re middle-aged and unaerobicized, and their encounters aren’t photographed through filters or gels or romanticized with gushing strings. (Indeed, Antares goes refreshingly easy on all kinds of music, although Alfred does like Schubert.)
The second episode follows Sonja (Susanne Wuest), a supermarket clerk who falsely told Marco (Dennis Cubic) that she was pregnant so he’d marry her. A billboard hanger and a refugee from the former Yugoslavia, Marco is excited about the baby but not so dedicated to Sonja that he won’t slip out to see Nicole (Martina Zinner). While Sonja broods about Marco’s absences and wonders how much longer she can sustain the lie, the movie’s third chapter takes on Nicole and explosive ex-husband, Alex (Andreas Kiendl), a real-estate agent who despises immigrants almost as much as he hates the idea that his former wife might have a new love.
All three women and two of the men live in the same grim apartment complex, so they inevitably encounter each other. As the film progresses, moments that seemed like asides in one tale reveal their significance in another one. In knitting together the incidents that once seemed unrelated, however, Spielmann reveals nothing but the cleverness of his narrative design. Jealousy, loneliness, and lust link these couples, yet they never seem acutely connected—or, for that matter, especially alive.
From the visually eloquent Carnage to the synthetically warm-hearted Amélie, most films built on overcomplicated schemata risk becoming mechanical. That doesn’t seem to bother Spielmann. He and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht have given this film a cold, clinical appearance that’s more appropriate to a hospital—one of the recurring locations—than to the hotel room or apartments where love attempts to flourish. The movie ends with death, but it’s not fatalistic so much as simply detached. Although it may always be notorious for its hot scenes, Antares is cold to the touch.
For Steamboy, his long-awaited second animated feature, Katsuhiro Otomo relocates from Akira’s bombed-out Neo-Tokyo to Victorian Britain, taking his apocalyptic concerns with him. The manga and anime auteur’s lovingly rendered yet narratively sketchy adventure opens in Alaska, where father-and-son innovators Lloyd and Eddie Steam are tinkering with massive machinery. The action then switches to Manchester, home of the Industrial Revolution and Eddie’s plucky young son, Ray. When Grandpa Steam sends a package to the boy, untrustworthy-looking guys immediately arrive to claim its contents: a “steamball” so powerful that it could be, well, an A-bomb. A chase involving a steamroller, a steam train, and a hydrogen dirigible leads Ray to London, where the Crystal Palace sparkles and the Great Exhibition of 1851 is about to begin.
After an inconclusive meeting with inventor (and genuine historical figure) Robert Stephenson, Ray finds himself the uncomfortable guest of the O’Hara Foundation, which traffics in cutting-edge war gizmos designed by Eddie—over the objections of Grandpa. Ray’s dad also designed the “steam castle” where Ray is held and which is also the temporary home of the O’Hara clan’s whiny young heir, Scarlett. (This must be a bilingual gag, given that dropping the apostrophe from “O’Hara” yields a Japanese surname.) Ray and Scarlett ally when they witness the O’Hara Foundation’s devastating demo of its wares: Tanks, cyborgs, and men in flying machines battle along the banks of the Thames, doing a Godzilla on Victoria’s London. Scarlett becomes the gutsy, barely pubescent gal required as comrade and not-quite-love-interest in most anime scenarios, while Ray converts a steamball into an improvised jet pack so he can buzz around the sky like a 19th-century Astroboy when—one more inevitable transformation—the steam castle turns into a sort of Death Star and blasts off.
Otomo’s steampunk caper is hardly unprecedented. Premier Japanimator Hayao Miyazaki has indulged his love of vintage mechanisms in such films as Porco Rosso and Castle in the Sky, and Japan-struck cyberfictionist William Gibson co-wrote a 1990 novel, The Difference Engine, that’s widely credited with initiating the alternate–Steam Age subgenre. Steamboy’s warnings against war and potentially uncontrollable technology are also familiar: They echo some 50 years of post-Hiroshima Japanese cinema, from Kurosawa to Rodan to Otono’s own celebrated first animated feature. The director even adds a riff that could be taken as a comment on the Kyoto accords—or perhaps just a steal from The Day After Tomorrow.
The major difference between Otomo’s two animated features is that Akira, which condensed a long-running comic-book series, had more content than it could handle, whereas Steamboy has almost none. Its brown-and-gray Victorian Age is enlivened by chase and battle scenes, but not in the least by character. Perhaps the tale is more involving in the original Japanese-language version, which runs about 15 minutes longer, and which Landmark E Street will show (subtitled, of course) at the last screening each day of the English version’s run. Certainly the lack of such distracting “voice talent” as Anna Paquin (Ray), Alfred Molina (Eddie), and Patrick Stewart (Lloyd) should be a boon. Yet it seems likely that, just as in the shorter cut, the remarkably detailed backdrops will upstage the movie’s bland protagonist and his battle against the O’Haras’ weapons of allegorical destruction.CP