Monday, December 15, 2008

Queue It Up: Conversations With Other Women

[In celebration of a favorite film femme, The Cooler offers the following review, written upon the film’s release in the author’s pre-blog era.]

He sidles up to her with the too-charming-to-be-trustworthy swagger that is fast becoming Aaron Eckhart’s trademark. She takes him in with the dark, haunting eyes that could only belong to Helena Bonham Carter. He advances relentlessly, like a guy who knows that bridesmaids are supposed to be easy targets. She plays defense effortlessly, like a woman who has been a bridesmaid before. He sees her almost-40 figure for the twentysomething she used to be. She sees both of them for what they are: too old for this sort of thing.

In Conversations With Other Women the Man and Woman characters – we never learn their names – meet again and for the first time. Instantly they recognize one another’s type, and soon we learn that they might know each other even better than that. But there are rituals to be followed, a certain level of etiquette to be respected. And so even if they know immediately that they will go to bed together – attending a wedding reception in the banquet hall of a New York hotel they are tantalizingly close to so many empty rooms – they dance the dance. Quickly we realize that it isn’t the horizontal mambo they’re craving, it’s the waltz.

With a running time of 84 minutes, Conversations unfolds more or less in real time over the course of one late night. Written by Gabrielle Zevin, the screenplay is almost nothing but talk and reminds of the Richard Linklater films Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, encapsulating a full relationship from birth to death in a matter of hours. Yet these characters are more pragmatic than the philosophizing, love-drunk pair played so touchingly by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. They are jaded, a bit cynical and experienced enough to know that the excitement they feel in one another’s presence will go flat along with the champagne bubbles.

The bond that they share is merely illusionary. Then again, what is love without magic, and what is magic without illusion? In a pair of marvelous performances Eckhart and Bonham Carter defy what should be possible. Their characters are entirely foreign to one another and yet as close as family at the same time. Zevin’s script provides a treasure trove of superb dialogue, but it’s the actors who make the lines sparkle like polished gemstones. This is as confidently-acted a film as you’ll come across, starring a pair of veterans who are wound up and then unleashed to fantastic results.

Seeing Bonham Carter on the screen is a joy. The actress appears in at least a movie a year but recently she’s been obscured by heavy makeup and hideous wigs in the films of her director husband Tim Burton. In Planet Of The Apes, Bonham Carter made for a surprisingly sexy simian, but this is so much better. Here she seems nothing but human: her lower eyelids a little wrinkly, her hair done up and yet a bit disheveled, her abdominals hidden by a beautiful bit of tummy. Tucked into her pink dress Bonham Carter is a stunning almost-40 bridesmaid, though you get the sense that her character isn’t just waxing poetic when she notes that “the illusion of effortlessness takes quite a bit of effort indeed.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Eckhart makes it look all too easy. His turn might be just as good as Bonham Carter’s, but his performance is so relaxed that it doesn’t feel like acting. More like playing. Armed with a politician’s smile and a schoolboy’s charm it’s as if he’s always a moment away from trying to sell us something. And though he’s dressed sharply in a suit, he’s as relaxed as if in pajamas – so comfortable that it’s difficult to imagine him wearing anything else.

While Bonham Carter’s character drags her heels to make her pursuer work for his spoils, Eckhart glides an inch above the floor, unaffected by gravity. Recognizing the brilliance of these heartfelt performances is easy, but enjoying them requires that we adapt to their unusual presentation: Director Hans Canosa lets the entire film play out in split-screen, Eckhart in one frame, Bonham Carter in the other, even when they’re so close together that the frames overlap. The result is what I imagine the world looks like to those lizards with independently moving eyes, and it takes some getting used to, especially because in early scenes Canosa doesn’t balk at having other wedding attendees walk across each frame.

In the end though, it works. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a brilliant technique, but the technique is brilliantly applied. Sometimes one of the images is used to show a character’s memories. Other times it’s used to portray a character’s hopes and desires. But mostly the split-screen reminds us that the two characters come to each other with walls built around them. Getting physically close is easy. But truly letting someone else in? That’s much harder.

(Spoiler warning) It’s no accident then that the one scene where the line between Eckhart and Bonham Carter essentially disappears comes just after their characters part ways. Riding away from one another in their own taxis, the split-screen images are lined up so perfectly that Eckhart and Bonham Carter appear to be in the back of the same cab. The message is clear: for the first time this night and morning the man and woman are truly experiencing the same emotion. For the first time they are free to drop their fortifications. But all too late.

Could Conversations work without split-screen? Most definitely. The writing and the performances would impress regardless. But the atypical approach provides more than a break from the norm. By underlining the distance between the two characters, the chasm becomes a character in itself. It reminded me of standing at the south rim of the Grand Canyon and gazing toward a north rim: close enough to see, but a long, difficult journey to reach. The things keeping these two characters apart are just as daunting. But that doesn’t stop them from enjoying the view.

[“Queue It Up” is a series of sporadic recommendations of often overlooked movies for your Netflix queue.]


Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful film that deserves to be rediscovered. Thanks for a really insightful review and a reminder that I need to see this again soon.

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