Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Conversations With Other Women
This is one of those film reviews where less is best. To tell you too much about the plot is to ruin the great reveals that take place almost from the get-go. So forgive me if I’m a bit vague. What I can tell you is that the film takes place during and after a wedding reception in a New York hotel, and that it is a story of love, rather than a traditional love story.
The title is a bit misleading, as one woman does the majority of the conversing. First time director Hans Canosa defends the title, explaining that it refers more to the many sides of her character than to conversations with other women.
Produced on a shoestring budget of $300,000, this independent film is unique in a number of ways, the most obvious being the use of a split screen from the first frame to the very last.
The split-screen effect is hardly new, having been used for years to create suspense, punch up an action sequence, or show both sides of a telephone conversation, as in 1959's Pillow Talk, where Rock Hudson and Doris Day played footsie while soaking in separate tubs.
Using a split screen throughout, is something else again, and takes a short but necessary period of adjustment. As a result, the whys, wherefores and revelations come slowly at first, giving the viewer time to get the hang of it.
But have no fear, within moments you will be totally engrossed in the story, as frame by frame you learn more about the man and woman who are at the center of the piece. Listed only as "He" and "She" in the movie's cast of characters, their story at first glance, is like millions of others' who cross paths at a wedding reception.
He, as played by Aaron Eckhart, is a good-looking thirty-eight year-old-male, who, as the film opens, is captivated by one of the bridesmaids: a woman who is desperately trying to find a place to have a smoke.
Stationed at the bar, he watches as she (Helena Bonham Carter) is twarted again and again before finding a quiet spot to light up. Grabbing a couple of glasses of wine, he leaves the bar and tender behind with a “Wish me luck,” catching her in mid drag.
Their conversation is benign at first: clipped and witty repartee that reveals little more than the fact that she is a last-minute replacement for the seventh of seven bridesmaids, having flown in from London to fill the suddenly vacated spot in the wedding party.
Before long the conversation shifts to more intimate matters involving past dalliances and current relationships. We learn that both are 'involved'. She is married to a doctor (“Jeffrey, the cardiologist”), while he is going with a Broadway hoofer half his age (“Sarah, the dancer”).
As the night wears on, we get to know a bit more about our couple, learning how he came to be at the party, and where she fits in. From time to time his and her frames nearly overlap, appearing to merge into one figure at the center of the screen. And that’s the point of it, says the director – who notes that as two people grow closer, there is a melding and blending of souls.
But blending is only one of the many ways Canosa uses the split screen to capture memories and explore motivations, generally reserving Screen Left for the action, and Screen Right for the reaction, in real time.
The split screen also allows a character to reminisce on one screen, while on the other, we see a flashback of the event. In some cases, the memory and the reality are quite different, guilded or tarnished by time. (Think Gigi, and the Chevalier/Gingold duet, "I Remember It Well.")
While Conversations with Other Women is basically a drama, it is not without its comedic moments, one of which takes place immediately following the reception, as the wedding guests go their separate ways. Contemplating the consequences of what they are about to do, our couple stands motionless in front of a hotel elevator, even as the doors slide open.
Enter the O.C.’s Olivia Wilde as a bridesmaid who quickly sizes up the situation. A friend of “Sarah the dancer”, she is determined to let Sarah’s beau know how displeased she is with this turn of events. Awkward, embarrassing, off-putting and humorously realistic, the scene is beautifully written and executed.
Once in the relative safety of her hotel room, the couple sheds a bit of their emotional armor along with their clothes. Despite his good looks, he, at least in this situation, is far from the self-assured, bon ve vant we are accustomed to seeing in American film. Vulnerable without being neurotic, thoughtful, while not drowning in sentimentality, he is, despite this obvious indiscretion, a decent fellow. She is a bit edgier: a woman who is hesitant to put herself out there and reveal or expose that which is most precious and closely guarded. This reversal of common stereotypes makes for some interesting and unexpected moments in an interesting and unexpected movie.
Conversations with Other Women was filmed well before the Harry Potter movies and The King’s Speech put Bonham Carter on Hollywood’s “A” list, and Eckhart took on more visible roles in films like No Reservations and The Dark Knight. Yet and still, money (they worked for scale) was obviously not the guiding force in their signing on to the project. Rather, they, like most of those associated with the film, were intrigued by Gabrielle Zevin’s tightly knit script, and Canosa’s unique vision.
Winner of several Independent Spirit awards and other international contests, Conversations with Other Women is far from a perfect movie, but considering the size of the budget, incredible time constraints (two five-day weeks of primary filming), and last minute twists and turns that could easily have brought production to halt, it is a triumph.
Those of you who are into the technical side of filmmaking will enjoy the DVD's commentary track, which is filled with all manner of ‘This is how we did that’ tidbits: stories of how the cast and crew came together to make the impossible, possible. But tidbits aside, this small but absorbing film stands on its own as an offbeat, captivatingly original piece of movie making.