The usual scenario of an episodic project looking tantalizing on paper but proving disappointing in the actual sampling plays itself out in "Erotic Tales." An intriguing group of six diverse international directors has produced a grab bag of half-hour vignettes that are almost uniformly undercharged sexually and, with a couple of exceptions, cutesy in plot resolution. Most have trouble simply telling a structurally coherent, involving story. Unsatisfying as a group, but with one stunner in the bunch, German-produced collection can play at fests and in specialized urban and campus slots, but is better suited to cable playoff Stateside and tube situations overseas.
The usual scenario of an episodic project looking tantalizing on paper but proving disappointing in the actual sampling plays itself out in “Erotic Tales.” An intriguing group of six diverse international directors has produced a grab bag of half-hour vignettes that are almost uniformly undercharged sexually and, with a couple of exceptions, cutesy in plot resolution. Most have trouble simply telling a structurally coherent, involving story. Unsatisfying as a group, but with one stunner in the bunch, German-produced collection can play at fests and in specialized urban and campus slots, but is better suited to cable playoff Stateside and tube situations overseas.The Bob Rafelson and Susan Seidelman entries debuted at Cannes (after the latter had been nominated for a short-subject Oscar), and the entire six-pack was served up for the first time on two programs, one U.S., the other international, at the recent AFI/L.A. fest. Rafelson has a bit of slippery fun with “Wet,” which depicts an after-hours encounter between an upscale bathroom-fixtures salesman and a provocative would-be customer for the ultimate in whirlpool bathtubs. Popping into the store right at closing time, the playful Cynda Williams checks out the merchandise lonely guy Arliss Howard has to offer, building up to her nude plunge in the bubbles and invitation to the unsuspecting fellow to join her. Explanatory coda is harmlessly silly. Comedy, sexual tension and voyeuristic elements are all there in light but agreeable doses. The voluptuous Williams (“One False Move”) and Howard play off each other nicely, and pic has been elegantly mounted under modest circumstances. Coincidentally, Seidelman’s “The Dutch Master” also involves after-hours entry and a bathtub, but concerns not a casual encounter but a romantic fixation across the centuries. Mila Solvino plays a working-class dental assistant who, on a chance visit to New York’s Metropolitan Museum, becomes fascinated with a beautiful young man depicted in a 17th-century Dutch painting. As her boss, friends, parents and fiance become perplexed by her behavior, Solvino is able to enter the world of the painting as an unseen spectator to the events being played out by its inhabitants, which she does repeatedly, finally donning period garb and offering herself to her dream man. Played out almost entirely behind voiceover commentary by assorted onlookers, pic is pleasantly observant about the transforming qualities of art, but is mostly interesting as a technical exercise, as the transition of the painting into a three-dimensional dramatic setting proves quite effective. Maryse Alberti’s lensing is sensitive to its inspirational source, while erotic content per se is minimal. “The Insatiable Mrs. Kirsch” represents Ken Russell at low tide. Coarse and staggeringly silly up to its bizarrely sweet surprise ending, this is another largely voiceover tale in which a young male writer (Simon Shepherd) becomes obsessed with a tarty-looking woman (Hetty Baynes) at a remote Dorset seaside inn. As both sit at separate tables at meals, the novelist goes bananas watching the woman lasciviously eating corn on the cob, sausage, asparagus and an eclair. Following her to her door, he listens as she wears out three vibrators, then secretly pursues her on jaunts across the countryside, where she is similarly auto-erotic. By making the object of the fellow’s lust so overtly vulgar and crude, Russell would seem to be having a little fun with the whole notion of erotic obsession, but it’s all very one-note and gross. Final twist is downright goofy, even benign, especially coming from the past master of lust and kink. Compared with the other entries, technical aspects here are rather threadbare. Better technically, but equally bereft of ideas, is Melvin Van Peebles’ inane “Vrooom, Vrooom, Vrooom,” a fantasy in which a horny young man’s wishes for a slick motorcycle and a hot woman are satisfied in one go by a voodoo woman. Leaving his father’s country shack behind, Richard Barboza zooms off each night on his bike, which under the moonlight transforms magically into a gorgeous woman positioned strategically between his legs. Blissful state of affairs lasts until Barboza makes the mistake of giving a flirtatious woman a ride, at which point the chopper rebels and gives its driver the heave-ho. With its very broad acting and simplistic story, entry is notable only for the slick morphing effects that turn the bike’s exhaust pipes into legs, headlight into a head and gas tank into a woman’s torso. Paul Cox’s Aussie contribution, “Touch Me,” at least offers up some distinctive textures and a reasonably adult sensibility. Loaded with femme nudity and tentative homoeroticism, this study of female friendship bordering on the amorous doesn’t know where it’s going but remains intriguing and quite watchable while it’s onscreen. Gosia Dobrowolska plays an art teacher whose warm feelings for her class’ sexy model, Claudia Karvan, prompt her to dump her b.f., at least for the weekend, and join her female friend for a weekend in the mountains. The duo’s three sessions of intense physicality — a fireside, full-body oil massage, a romp in the fields with two horses, and a sponging Dobrowolska gives Karvan — are dwelled upon at length and are hardly painful to watch. But the action, which is punctuated by some explicit messages and drawings that keep rolling out of the teacher’s fax machine, never builds to a comprehensible conclusion, so that, despite its crisp dialogue and good performances, episode has little weight. By far the most striking erotic tale comes from India and the group’s least-known director, Mani Kaul. Although its narrative is somewhat unclear, “The Cloud Door” features pictorial beauty, slow-building sensuality and surprising humor that combine to rich effect. Uniquely funny opening has a pet parrot delivering an erotic commentary to an exquisitely beautiful, palace-bound princess. After a voyeuristically bountiful scene of several gorgeous womencavorting in a pool, the bird flies off to the home of a handsome young fellow and guides him to its mistress’s palace to take revenge against a local religious fanatic “who is against Eros.” A poetic, enigmatic love scene ensues that is certainly quite explicit by Indian standards. From this point on, action becomes increasingly obscure, but the performers’ dancelike movements, the precise camera moves, extraordinary orchestration of colors and musical detailing are seductive throughout and, as filmmaking, are on a level well beyond that displayed in the other installments. As an extra dividend, performance by the talking parrot is downright hilarious.