A man and a woman in their late 30s or early 40s meet at a wedding. She (Helena Bonham Carter) looks particularly ill-at-ease in her bridesmaid's dress as she ducks into corners trying to find a place to smoke. He (Aaron Eckhart) watches her with amused interest and finally asks the bartender to wish him luck. As the reception winds down, the two of them sit at a table, sparring lightly like strangers who've got each other's numbers.
The first thing you notice about "Conversations With Other Women," directed by Hans Canosa and written by Gabrielle Zevin, is its proudly obtrusive cinematic device -- a split screen that keeps the actors on opposite sides of an invisible but impassable divide, like the plexiglass partition between prisoner and visitor. It takes a moment for the eye to adjust to the trick; the man and the woman are occupying the same space at the same distance from the camera, and for a while you hang on to the hope that what you're looking at is no more than a divisive background playing a trick on the eye. The device feels like overkill; watching jaded grown-ups flirt is evidence enough of the impossibility of total connection between two people. Gradually, it becomes clear that the man and the woman aren't strangers at all -- and their former acquaintance, only a decade past but seeming like a lifetime ago, begins to play out alongside the present.
The wedding is in New York, where the man now lives with a dancer 20 years his junior. The woman lives in London and is married to a cardiologist who is several years older. She's been asked at the last minute to fill in for an absentee bridesmaid, although initially it's not clear why she's traveled so far to attend an event full of people she barely remembers and doesn't seem to like much. She's here for a reason, he knows what it is, and as they take the conversation upstairs to her hotel room, the depth and effect of their past relationship is gradually revealed.
"Conversations With Other Women" elapses within a handful of hours and inside two contained spaces. But splitting the screen allows Canosa to move laterally across alternate scenarios and individual perceptions of shared moments, as well as back in time into what now seems like another life, without the use of interpolated flashbacks. Their younger selves, played by Nora Zehetner and Erik Eidem, bounce from barbecues to dance clubs to bed blissfully unaware that what the future holds for them, as a unit, is a single stolen night in a hotel room where they'll wonder what happened.
"All this land used to be mine," the man murmurs into her belly after she undresses, and time does a curious loop. Does memory trump the present, or has time put a distance between them that they could never broach?
Zehetner exudes a wry melancholy that we know will harden into a familiar kind of rueful world-weariness. Eidem, meanwhile, very nearly pops with youthful carelessness and insouciance. Of the two, it's his world-view that has been upended -- you get the feeling that his understanding of life has been challenged while hers has been confirmed. He's still charming and feckless, she's still sharp and decisive, but he is now as unmoored as she is resigned.
An intimate movie in every sense, "Conversations With Other Women" sets out to explore well-trammeled yet at the same time uncharted territory without grinding any axes. What it offers is a modest fantasy that will be familiar to contemporaries of Bonham Carter and Eckhart especially. It's sad and funny, satisfying and frustrating, totally familiar. What their sly teasing and gentle baiting reveals, aside from an arch understanding of the self-imposed but still seemingly unpassable romantic roadblocks we throw in our path as we age, is a yearning for a time before accumulated experience completely obscures the view.
'Conversations With Other Women'
MPAA rating: R for language and sexual content
A Fabrications Films release. Director-editor Hans Canosa. Writer Gabrielle Zevin. Producers Ram Bergman, Bill McCutchen, Kerry Barden. Cinematography Steve Yedlin. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes.
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