September 23, 2006

A conversation piece

By: Kelly Jane Torrance

Conversations with Other Women is one of those movies that are difficult to review. Much of the pleasure of watching the film, which opened this weekend in D.C. and a handful of other cities, comes in slowly getting to know the man and woman at its center. What we understand of their personalities, their situations, changes over the course of the 84 minutes of the movie. To give too much away would be taking all the fun out of one of the most formally interesting and emotionally satisfying films released in a long while.

The unnamed couple we spend an hour and a half with is played with a seemingly artless ease by Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter. Eckhart is a guest at a wedding; Bonham Carter is a bridesmaid. The film opens with a split screen. Eckhart is on one side, smiling, sometimes chuckling, to himself as he watches Bonham Carter, on the other side, desperately trying to find a place to smoke. Man, woman; predator, prey?

Eckhart certainly seems to be the slick type taking advantage of what’s often — especially for bridesmaids — a romantic but disappointing affair. “Bridesmaids are brides in training,” he jokes. “They’re like matrimonial interns.”

But the situation is not so simple. Neither is the film. The split screen, which might seem like a cute opening device, remains throughout the film. It’s no gimmick, though. The use of dual frames allows director Hans Canosa and writer Gabrielle Zevin to explore a relationship much more fully than the average film allows. We often see Eckhart on one side, Bonham Carter on the other, emphasizing the idea that a pair is made up of two very different parts, who might be thinking very different things about what they share. “You’re lonely, too,” Eckhart says to Bonham Carter at one point. “Of course I am,” she responds. “Everyone’s lonely.” Showing one evening on a split screen reinforces that belief.

The filmmakers do more with their formal innovation than that, though. Sometimes the second half explains the action, sometimes it parallels it. Sometimes it shows us something else going on that same moment, sometimes it reveals a character’s history, and once a while it even gives an alternative version of reality, giving us a glimpse of that road not taken. Once it focuses on what seems like the tiniest thing, a blinking message button on a phone, and we realize how important this detail is to the action on the other side.

An intimate movie like this, with only cameos by other actors, stands and falls by its two principals. Eckhart and Bonham Carter might seem like an odd pairing — he’s an American best known for morally problematic roles in Neil LaBute’s “In the Company of Men” and Jason Reitman’s “Thank You for Smoking,” while she made her name as the epitome of delicate Englishness in Merchant-Ivory period dramas. But the contrast between these two gifted actors, who have given solid performances in film after film, only heightens the enjoyable tension between them. The interplay between the two — sometimes funny, sometimes bittersweet — had me smiling even as I wondered how they, and the film, would surprise me next.

It helps that young writer Gabrielle Zevin has given them so much funny and smart dialogue with which to work. “My ex-husband made me deliriously miserable,” Bonham Carter reflects. It seems like she’s the more reflective of the pair, throwing out thoughts on loneliness, aging, and regret. Eckhart at first is all attitude: “You call more attention to it when you don’t say it bluntly,” he says with some cockiness to Bonham Carter of her age. His view of relationships? “In my opinion, when it gets too serious, it’s over.” Bonham Carter, though, might see through him. “What plays well now?” she asks this possible lothario. “Sincerely, when I can fake it,” he quickly responds.

But Eckhart may have some of the most romantic lines of a movie that is, in the end, terribly romantic. “If the cardiologist decides you’re too old and decrepit to be loveable, I am available to tolerate you in your golden years,” he tells Bonham Carter, referring to her husband. It’s the vulnerable woman who turns out to be the cynic when she declares, “There are no happy endings in our future.”

The split screen may be a medium that sends a message: these two people aren’t connected. Will the dual frames finally dissolve into one in the end? Is it even possible, emotionally speaking, for two people to be on the same plane?

The movie slyly answers this question. But it doesn’t really matter; it’s the exploration that counts in this thoughtful film that has a European feel. The gulf between men and women seems a particularly French theme. This connection is fueled by a soundtrack that includes three beautiful songs in French by singer-guitarist Carla Bruni. Her chansons are influenced by folk and jazz but nevertheless sound contemporary. They perfectly match a movie that explores age-old problems in a highly original way.

Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash. Her Web site is