It's hard to carry an entire film without the two focal characters ever being called by name -- either by each other or by anyone else. It's a tricksy kind of gimmick, but one that works so well in director Hans Canosa's feature debut, Conversations With Other Women, that I didn't even notice the absence of character names until I paid attention to the closing credits -- the second time I watched the film.
And Canosa uses another gimmick: A split-screen effect that carries the characters from one frame to the other while keeping them apart, simultaneously showing us two points of view. That's two gimmicks in one film, in case you're counting. Okay, actually three, if you count the fact that the film opens with Man (Aaron Eckhart) approaching Woman (Helena Bonham-Carter) at a wedding, wineglass in hand, in what appears to be a spontaneous come-on in the midst of a boring wedding reception. Ah, but it's not -- there is history between these two, and lots of it.
Ordinarily, I might be disinclined to like a film that relies on no less than three gimmicks to carry its weight, but when gimmicks actually work as well as they do in Conversations With Other Women, I'll cut it some slack. The movie largely works in spite of the split-screen gimmick, riding on the cleverness of Gabrielle Zevin's script and the sublime acting on the parts of both Eckhart (who has quickly become one of my favorite actors) and Bonham-Carter. They handle the witty repartee with a practiced ease that makes one feel as though these two have been in this place and uttered these lines across many lifetimes, and the dialogue is masterful, witty but not contrived.
Conversations with Other Women focuses on two unnamed souls who meet at a wedding reception -- but not, as we quickly come to understand, for the first time. If you've ever had a relationship fraught with emotional history -- one that careened, inexplicably, off-course, but that nonetheless hovers in your subconscious, popping up at the most irrational or inconvenient moments -- you will probably resonate with the emotional energy that pulls these reunited people together, whether they like it or not. All the little decisions and indecisions that form the pattern of a relationship and its end unfold before us as we see these characters reinvent and relive a long-dead relationship over the course of a single evening.
The split-screen technique is used by Canosa to show us both the two points of view of the current interaction between Eckhart and Bonham-Carter, and the overlapping views of the past and present. The two actors are never in the same screen together -- they are kept apart visually, as they are by the layer of history and misunderstanding between them. This is a complex dance between two people caught in the web of "might have beens", brought briefly back together by circumstance (but also by contrivance, as She agreed to be in the wedding party largely because She knew that He would be there). In a sense, you might say that Canosa and Zevin attempt here to capture the complex layers of an entire relationship, from both points of view, in the 90 or so minutes of the film. It's intriguing, because as a viewer you see both points of view at once, rather than shots panning back and forth showing alternating reactions. Imagine being in an interaction with another person, and being able to see their reactions as well as your own. Of course, Man and Woman aren't privy, as we are, to both views of this joint emotional ride, but that doesn't dim the performances an iota.
The dual screens are also used to good effect to show what the characters are thinking (for instance, when Man says his current girlfiend is a professional dancer -- she's a ballerina -- Woman cattily envisions a stripper, pole dancing). Not that this couldn't have been accomplished through a jump cut or other technique, but it makes good use of the approach being used here. The sex scene in the film, I guarantee, is like none you've ever seen, made somehow more intimate by the effect of the frames keeping the two points of view apart.
The split-screen gimmick was, admittedly, distracting and a bit annoying to me the first time I saw the film. I wanted to focus on the dialogue, not get dizzy trying to pay attention to both sides at once. When I saw it a second time, however, I grew to appreciate the dual points of view. Eckhart and Bonham-Carter use their mutual charm to maximum effectiveness, sparring off each other with ease, and practically sending sparks through the screen as they banter back and forth, building the sexual tension between their characters. Eckhart is as charming and handsome here as he was in his other major recent role in Thank You for Smoking, exuding leading-man charisma, and Bonham-Carter is luminously lovely, lighting up the screen not only with her fey beauty but also her rapier wit and intelligence.
Canosa shows himself with his feature debut (which is not to imply a lack of experience -- as a Harvard undergrad he was quite prolific in producing shorts and videos) to be an able and adept director. Perhaps it's his background -- raised by strict Fundamentalist Christian parents, Canosa was forbidden to see art, including theater and film, and as a consequence didn't see his first movie until he was a teenager. Whether because that background made him appreciate cinema that much more, or because he just naturally has the eye of a director -- or both -- his direction seems infused with a joy and passion for the art of filmmaking. Canosa and Zevin will be colloborating next on Margarettown, a novel written by Zevin. I haven't read the book, but I look foward to seeing what they'll come up with for that one.