Conversations with Other Women

(2006) ** 1/2 R
84 min. Strand Releasing. Director: Hans Canosa. Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Helena Bonham Carter, Olivia Wilde, Nora Zehetner, Erik Eidem.

The glib, one-phrase review of Conversations with Other Women goes like this: "Brian DePalma's Before Sunset." In dual-frame split screen, old flames reconnect, talk up a storm, and make bedroom eyes at each other. Writer Gabrielle Zevin takes this couple into the bed and beyond, and director Hans Canosa so commits to his split-screen concept that he never leaves it. The idea—despite the horribly clumsy title—is to represent the two active gender perspectives. The style gooses interest in the talky film but also has a fatally distancing effect (50 points for figuring out which side of the screen is which!).

Man (Aaron Eckhart) and Woman (Helena Bonham Carter) reunite at a wedding that neither one wants to attend, except for the off-chance that they might see each other. When they do, they begin a complex, coy dance whose object may be a one-night-stand and a renewed relationship or merely flirtation. Neither character seems to know for sure, which gives their reckless night added dramatic frissons amid the deceptively discursive discussion. Meanwhile, Canosa's annoying use of Carla Bruni ditties and that distracting split screen conspire to keep us at arm's length.

Conversations with Other Women effectively demonstrates the maddening effects of inconvenient love and impractical fate, the slipperiness of memory, and the human compulsion to repeat the same mistakes. As counterpoint to the modern flirtation, Canosa continually flashes back, in an adjacent frame, to the couple's lovey-dovey, mid-twenties sexual relationship (enacted by Erik Eidem and Nora Zehetner). These mental projections underline the couple's favorite delusion: that they haven't been changed by age and circumstance. The film's only significant conclusion, however, is that it's hard to be happy.

Man and Woman traffic in hesitations ("If we go in," Woman remarks outside the hotel elevator, "we're committing to a course of action"), promises ("I'm available to tolerate you in your golden years," says Man), and pessimism (Woman: "There are no happy endings in our future"). Naturally, half-truths and lies dominate the chat until twisty truths begin to out. One of the non-twists is that the two do take that elevator and enjoy a night together; it's post-coitus that the film arguably "jumps the shark." Man becomes overly childish (with Eckhart's performance turning loopy), and the soapy secrets begin to emerge.

This actor's showcase proves two things: Carter can do no wrong, and Eckhart needs a director he can trust to guide his performance. Canosa fails to protect Eckhart, whose work is uncharacteristically uneven here, but there's still heat in this star coupling and Zevin's clever screenplay. Even if it never feels as universal, as complicated, or as charming as Linklater's Before Sunset (Zevin's best shot is Man's forced philosophizing about how "time really can move in two directions. It doesn't matter to the universe anyway"), Conversations with Other Women nominally fits the bill as a juicy character drama.

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