Conversations with Other Women
2006Director: Hans Canosa
Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Helena Bonham Carter
ans Canosa does little to disguise his debut film, Conversations with Other Women. From the title, you know roughly what you are getting. Man meets woman. Man flirts with woman. Woman flirts back. An evening passes. The two separate. There was much talking. This is generally the film, right down to its unnamed main characters. Man (Aaron Eckhart) spots Woman (Helena Bonham Carter) through the crowd at a wedding reception. Let the conversations begin.
As a whole, Canosa’s film can be fittingly lodged into the genre of the conversation piece: the movie type developed around minimal casts, precise settings, and artful and insightful wording. Rooted in the films of the French New Wave, the genre is rare to American filmmaking, perhaps for its lack of roles involving stunt doubles, or its necessary elements (wicked intelligence, spontaneity, believability, and actors who can speak well). The United States has contributed Richard Linklater’s tandem Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, along with My Dinner with Andre, shot in the US by the theatrical genius and Frenchman Louis Malle. That’s about it.
Conversations is, then, slightly foreign—an odd blip on the American movie going radar that, this summer, has been coolly and consistently safe. The film was developed from the ground up, directed by a man with little experience outside his student work at Harvard, written by a young and untested novelist, Gabrielle Zevin, and worked through festivals in Los Angeles, Telluride, and Tokyo. In short, Conversations wears its ambition openly.
As an obvious example, the film proceeds, start to finish, in split-screen. Carter’s Woman speaks on one side of the frame, Eckhart’s Man listens on the other, in a different angle or perspective, across a visible divide in the middle. Man returns fire or crosses over, the shots on both sides of the screen changing. When both players take up the same pane onscreen, the other image shows either the events around them or visualizes their dialogue. At times, the device makes the experience of Conversations like watching the film being made, with alternate takes positioned side-by-side. In other moments, it feels like watching a tennis match, your focus constantly shifting from one edge of the screen to the other. This gives the film’s greatest technical challenge to its editor—to match action and continuity across two shots always paired on screen together. Yet, the device also allows him an odd visual poetry involving jumps in time, multiple perspectives on the same canvas, and the presentation of past memories alongside the story that describes them. In this instance, the editor succeeds admirably; no surprise that the editor is Canosa himself.
The film is a blatant showcase for Canosa, lacking for good and bad the restraint common to young directors and then subtlety gained through experience. The technical achievement, however, is ultimately not enough to overcome a script that is bland and unengaging. The conversation never rises above this one night between two people and the few memories that led to it. Canosa and screenwriter Zevin keep much of the information behind these characters hidden, right down to their names. As a result, a boring inevitability presides over the whole affair. Their relationship is bound to end. Despite Eckhart and Carter’s good work in adding a level of desperation and darkness to their characters’ dangerous flirtations—and despite Canosa and Zevin’s effort to position their characters as representatives of every couple, calling them the last two people on Earth at one point—you wonder why the conversation matters. It would be nice if it elevated to some broader meaning, or a meaning at all. “Relationships suck,” is the gist. “Let’s fuck and move on.”
The conversation piece is about surprise, after all. Surprise in the direction of all this talking, in the level of insight two people can share, in the possible, always uncertain conclusion of their relationship. The best moments are those random thoughts that come out of nowhere. “Memory's a wonderful thing if you don't have to deal with the past,” says Celine in Before Sunset, a typically beautiful and startling example. The most insightful part of Conversations with Other Women is the title, a reference to how people change over time.
Under this weight, even the once-innovative split-screen becomes merely kitsch—a basic, uncreative, and phony attempt to add significance to underwhelming dialogue. Canosa has talent, and Conversations proves he is on the way to developing it. For now, he over-reaches, sacrificing subtlety for loud statement. He will do better with more disguise.
Conversations with Other Women is playing in limited release.
By: Arthur Ryel-Lindsey
Published on: 2006-08-23