The most erotic thing in ''Eros" may be the Caetano Veloso song that curls around the title sequences introducing each of this omnibus film's three naughty tales. For almost 40 years, the Brazilian singer has purveyed a remarkably persuasive brand of intellectual make-out music, and his creamy tenor here hints at pleasures the film itself denies. Beware dirty movies made by men with clean fingernails.
That the Veloso song is called ''Michelangelo Antonioni" (it's off the singer's 2001 album ''Noites Do Norte") is all the more ironic, since the legendary Italian director has, at 92, contributed one of the segments here. As befits a legend, it's very much the worst one. But all things in their time.
First, we stop in 1960s-era Hong Kong for ''The Hand," a muted, urgent tale of longing and regret immediately familiar as the work of Wong Kar-Wai. In fact, this could be ''In the Mood for Love" simmered and reduced to stock, with elements of ''Camille" crumbled in for flavoring. Not that there's anything wrong with that. As shot by the redoubtable Christopher Doyle, ''The Hand" probes backroom apartments and hotel hallways for their secret tragedies, and it has two very good performances by Gong Li as an imperious but ailing call girl and Chang Chen (''Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") as the tailor who clothes her and worships her.
In other words, a studied portrait of romantic masochism that breaks no new ground but is pleasurable to watch. The only note of real kink, though -- aside from the opening sequence that gives the tale its name -- comes when the tailor makes love to the courtesan's empty clothes and the chasm between love and idolatry (or is it between what one yearns for and what one gets?) yawns wide.
There's not much eroticism to ''Equilibrium," either, once we get past the dreamlike images of a 1950s woman dressing after an afternoon assignation. But Steven Soderbergh has always been more interested in the ways people talk around sex -- not for nothing was his breakthrough movie called ''sex, lies, and videotape." This agreeably comic puzzle-box, ostensibly a two-character short about a psychiatrist (Alan Arkin) and his impatient new patient (Robert Downey Jr.), is drolly written and terrifically acted; what a treat it is to see Downey unleashed again, if only briefly. The segment devolves into ''Twilight Zone"-level surrealism, but then ends with a potent, poetic image of the unconscious mind sending out bulletins our waking self never bothers to read.
Finally comes the Antonioni: ''Il Filo Pericoloso Delle Cose" or ''The Dangerous Thread of Things." Set in a seaside community of rented castles and chic restaurants, it concerns very good-looking, very rich young Italians wearing either black or nothing at all as they bicker over the meaninglessness of their relationships and pair up with attractive strangers. Hardcore Antonioniacs might imagine an echo of the director's classic 1960 study of alienation, ''L'Avventura," but, sadly, the segment has far more in common with a Monty Python parody of ''L'Avventura."
And yet. Laughably pretentious as it is, ''Dangerous Thread" contains the only genuinely erotic moment in all of ''Eros," in a scene in which Christopher Buchholz ditches his annoying lover (Regina Nemni) and seduces another woman (Luisa Ranieri) in her crumbling medieval tower. Or is she seducing him? As they lead each other up and down spiral staircases and loop back through bedrooms, the expectation of what might happen raises the temperature onscreen and off. Then things do happen, and the results are tepid and funkless -- upscale, elegantly dull movie sex. Arguably, ''Eros" could have used a female director. Certainly it could have used a daring one.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.