Conversations with Other Women

| September 10, 2006

“Conversations with Other Women” is a winning, deeply psychological romantic drama with a curious round-up of ancestors. In any of its carefully considered, breathtaking moments, there are shades of “Closer,” “Time Code,” “Memento,” “Lady in the Lake,” “Garden State,” and most pressingly, television’s “24.” There’s a cloud of high-nosed gimmickry looming over the film that threatens to deflate the entire affair with one misstep in handling its split screens, its real-time conceit, its ceaselessly philosophical and articulate characters. But the filmmakers are careful here, not in a self-constricting sense, but in one that allows their ideas of love and life and failed dreams and rekindled hopes and all the stuff that the best of indies-with-a-smart-heart are made of, to fly free without flying off the handles. It’s a joy to watch.
The film begins with a man and a woman, whom – as we realize by the end credits – we only know as “Man” and “Woman.” The implication that these characters speak for all men and for all women is the film’s first and last joyfully ostentatious philosophy. In between, there are many, and all of them are springboarded by our Man (Aaron Eckhart) and Woman (Helena Bonham Carter), and the way they think (or don’t), the way they feel (or don’t), the way they interact with each other (or don’t). The Man approaches her at a wedding reception, he flirts, she flirts back, there’s immediate sexual tension. Flirting and sexual tension of course, in this sort of movie, means responding chiefly in aphorisms designed to make the audience (and the other character, but mostly the audience) to go, “Huh.”
Consider:
“Bridesmaids are like matrimonial interns.”
“Maybe I’m a self-hating lawyer.”
“Are you?”
“Is there any other kind?”
“It is what it is.”
“I hate that phrase. It sounds like dying.”
It’s difficult not to imagine Man and Woman thirty years from now playing bridge with the four-crossed lovers from “Closer” and hearing all six of them observe that “bridge is what happens when people trade in love for stability.”
As with “Closer,” though, these characters, warts and philosophy and all, work. Aaron Eckhart, at once genuine and sneaky with boy-mannish charm channeled through those eyes for which there is no other word but “pools,” conquers each inexplicable dialogue exchange, pushing them – with top-hat ease – to a point of believability, as does his sparring partner, Helena Bonham Carter, incidentally the only woman that can look stunning with the hair of a harried cavewoman.
Carter, meanwhile, has an additional challenge on her hands. Her character is about 27th in line in the latest Hollywood/indie parade of Crazy, Abrasive, Insightful Women. Witness Kate Winslet in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” or Robin Wright Penn in “A Home at the End of the World,” or Natalie Portman in “Garden State,” or, what do you know?, Natalie Portman in “Closer.” All Helena’s missing is the obligatory streak of dyed hair. Still, she infuses the character with a spirit that is strictly her own, grounding her in her own frustrated madness. Like her Man, she is fascinating, she’s a mystery, she’s something better than unique: she’s believable.
As Man and Woman navigate their own emotional minefields, we observe them through the entire film with dual split screens. Most of the time, it’s Man on the left, Woman on the right, Man and Woman switching places, Man and Woman from different angles, Man and Woman on the left, back story images on the right. It’s nifty, yes, but at least once, you’ll be asking yourself the same question “Memento” possibly begat: “Is this just an empty gimmick?”
Mostly, thankfully, it isn’t; the film lends the split screens not one but several justifications. There’s the nifty idea, cultivated by “24”‘s multi-screen bonanza, of seeing his instantaneous reaction to her shocking statement as it happens. There’s also 90 minutes of full on fun for any mise-en-scene junkie, who will certainly have a field day decoding what director Sam Canosa means when he separates our two actors, when he puts them in the same screen, or when he forms nifty symmetrical tableaus as he yokes two angles of the same image together.
The split-screen technique’s best use comes with several “interpretative” shots that pop up throughout the film. If the art of film is about turning the psychological into the visual, “Conversations with Other Women” has found a new, thrilling way to do it. An instance occurs when Woman, on the left screen, approaches Man, embraces him. On the right screen, she’s still standing where she was before, keeping her distance. After a lingering moment, Woman-on-the-right gives in and approaches Man as her left-screen counterpart did seconds before. It’s a great moment, reflecting how we succumb to choices before we commit to them, how our mind and heart and body are hardly ever one.
“Conversations with Other Women” may or may not be saying anything new, but there’s something exceedingly soulful aching about Man and Woman’s story here, underneath all the glossy technique. Like Man, the film has a genuine heart, but has disingenuous means of showing it. Like Woman, the audience invariably must decide: Do I fall for it or am I better than this?
At best, “Conversations with Other Women” makes a persuasive argument for itself. It’s hard not to give in.

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