Monday, October 15, 2007

Multilogue in Two Frames

Conversation(s) With Other Women, Starring Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart, Written by Gabrielle Zevin, Directed by Hans Sanosa, 2005

My wife refers to the actress Helena Bonham Carter as “alternaslut” (and she says it like that’s a bad thing). This is a gibe against the roles the actress chooses. Certainly, there does seem to be a consistent pattern to the kind of women Bonham Carter plays onscreen, but that’s hardly unusual in cinema. Typecasting can be a bad thing when the actor or actress brings nothing particularly original or real to their role. Bonham Cater, on the other hand, is one of those actresses whose eyes give away the game; there is always much more going on mentally with her than with any number of other actresses. And intelligent filmmaking will always require people of complex motivation and questionable morality.

What’s on display in 2005’s two-person film Conversation(s) with Other Women is just that mix of troublesome choices and more than meets the eye storytelling. The Man, played by Aaron Eckhart meets The Woman at a wedding. Called in as a last minute alternate bridesmaid, Bonham Carter quickly reveals that she doesn’t really even know the bridal party that well anymore, that she had been friends with these people some time ago.

Eckhart, himself typecast as smooth-talking Lothario, tries to pick her up and for the first third of the movie the two them joust knowingly through their repartee. Their conversation and the camera work dance around their rather stilted, knowing suggestions and declarations. As the wedding winds down, they end up in her hotel room and much more is revealed about the two of them, about their pasts, about their presents.

The first thing you’ll notice watching this movie is that it is filmed entirely in split screen. I worried at first that this might be distracting, but it turned out not to be the case. Split screen is often used for dramatic effect when the filmmakers want to show you what’s happening as the main characters blithely go about their lives or for telephone conversations or the like. Mike Figgis’ 2000 film Timecode was probably one of the braver experiments in recent memory. In that film, the screen was broken into quadrants and each quadrant told a separate strand of the story.

In Conversation(s), the device is used for more subtle purposes. The effect is a more naturalistic acting style from the two leads than normally you might get in a film, as both actors are nearly constantly on camera, the two shots letting us see real-time reactions. We watch as Eckhart tries out some of his patter on Bonham Carter and we can see her distractions, her sudden flash of interest, the way what he’s saying can enkindle and then smother the spark in her eyes. Then as she speaks, we watch Eckhart puffing out his chest or smiling wryly at being called out. Body language is on much more prominent display and the overall effect is a heightened tension that is almost as breathtaking as any high speed action film’s work.

Perhaps the nicest effects of the split screen are when non-present elements are brought in. As the conversation progresses and deepens and it becomes clear that Eckhart and Bondham Carter’s characters knew each other in the past, we see competing memories as each tries to recall and rewrite history as it suits them. Their first meeting is told and retold throughout the film, the book she was reading changing, the outfit each wore changing, the setting shifting. Little strands of their dialogue remain undeveloped and you wonder how much more there is to the story that we’re not getting. Why Bonham Carter’s character moved to London is never entirely made clear nor why she flew across the Atlantic last minute for this wedding; emotional signposts are indicated but actual motivation isn’t simply and easily spelled out. The story becomes a puzzle that you try to put together just as the screen makes up an incomplete picture sometimes overlapping and sometimes widely spaced apart.

True to its title, the film is a dialogue lover’s feast as there is little storytelling not done through words, competing words, challenging words, hurtful words, tender words. There is also, unlike so many other films, very little actual music throughout the picture, soundtracks being notoriously overused as emotional signifiers, a musical laugh track to a film. What you feel for the characters each actor has to gain from you by their performance rather than get credit for because John Williams knows how to rip off his betters. Eckhart and Bonham Carter are both very good at this kind of harder work and manage to convey volumes in how they drink their champagne or in the expressions across their faces when confronted in an elevator by another member of the wedding party.

An unsettling and emotionally complicated film, Conversation(s) with Other Women manages to pull you in competing directions. When you settle down to feeling one way about the characters, the long-ignored present or the long-thought-buried past will rise up and confound your expectations. Director Sanosa and screenwriter Zevin are at work on a new film as of this writing. If Conversation(s) is a reliable indicator, quiet intelligent films for alternasluts will continue being made.

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