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Saturday
Sep172011

Conversation(s) with Other Women

Since there are two sides to every love story, split screen proved to be the perfect way to tell both sides of Conversation(s) with Other Women.  The technique is traditionally used to show two scenes that are happening in different places at the same time (Pillow Talk is a classic example).  While we use split screen this way, it is most often used to show the different experiences of our two characters in the same scene at the same time.
You will often read dismissive criticism about this other film, whose scenes proceed in inverse chronological order (the most recent is the first, and so forth), to the effect that “had it been chronological, the film would be plain and bland,” which is equivalent to saying that if that Gregor Samsa had just had a case of pneumonia, this brilliant tale would be rather commonplace.  The structure of a truly artistic work should be a reflection of the work itself, and not simply there to induce oohs and aahs from more impressionable readers or moviegoers.  Had this novel been set over the course of a month, all its compressive power would have dissipated into a frivolous Dublin soap opera; put this famous play into prose (or, horror of horrors, modern English) and you will get some philosophy, doubtless, but you will also lose all the wit of its evil world, every last drop of poetic justice and damnation.  When a work promotes a somewhat unorthodox structure, this choice must symbolize the motifs of the work itself, which is precisely how the above explanation, culled from the film’s official website and presumably from the mouth of first–time director Hans Camosa, will be used again and again to justify its gimmicky aspect.  

Gimmicky insofar as the structure, on occasion, supersedes the content, an encounter between a Woman (Helena Bonham Carter) and a Man (Aaron Eckhart), purposefully unnamed for clear symbolic reasons.  They meet at a wedding, where they seem to have friends enough in common to engage in superficial, almost gossipy banter, although it is obvious that they are attracted to one another.  As each probes the other’s emotional contours with the usual barrage of coy quips, it becomes painfully certain that these two souls have been connected for much longer than a half–inebriated wedding reception.  Not because they brandish their knowledge like billy clubs and take cheap shots that we can only understand as such when the other party winces, but because they are not talking about the present or perhaps a long and lusty night together, but about the past.  The Man mentions that when he first saw her, oh about a decade and a half ago, she was wearing a blue dress.  He remembers the dress but not the book she had in her hands, which would be more typically male and would indicate some literary context (especially if the book were by, say, this British authoress).  He also reveals that she was so fetching at that time and in that dress, that he could have kissed her then and there, which is the past intruding into the present, a theme that blooms slowly but vivaciously until the film’s conclusion.

And what of the present?  She is married to a doctor in England (Bonham Carter retains her native British accent), whilst he is dating a much younger woman, a dancer in her early twenties as the conversationalists are both roughly in their late thirties.  A telltale sign that he hasn't emotionally matured?  Or rather that he loves someone fifteen years younger because it was at that age that he met his soul’s twin?  An old chestnut for romantic movies, but one given emotional immediacy by the smoothness and chemistry of two people who know when to hold off on exploiting intimate knowledge.  One of the easiest things in the world is to expose the faults of someone you know well.  We may conclude therefore that knowing someone well means being thoroughly versed in that person’s shortcomings.  The Woman has one of the most bone–rattlingly banal faults of our modern times: she smokes. Yet this remains but a closet habit which does not please her medically–minded spouse, but which doesn’t bother the Man at all since his swagger would never be derailed by such a minor vice.  And herein lies the film’s only drawback, if one can call it that: the two leads, as straightforward and demure as they initially appear to be, have not developed as human beings with or without one another.  They are trapped watching themselves unravel over the years from that first wholesome blue dress to Bonham Carter’s strapless tea rose number, and they don’t particularly like what they see.         

A friend of mine told me that she was once chastised by a creative writing teacher in late high school or early college because she refused to write about relationships, which is “what you’d expect from young people” (she preferred moats, storms, and other gothic gadgets, but that's a story for another day).  She’s right of course, and not only because young people tend to have more relationships than the less volatile middle–aged crowd.  Teens and twentysomethings also often find that the only thing into which they have any insight is love, maybe because it's the only thing of any value they have ever experienced.  Love then becomes their compass, in both the good and bad sense, through life.  Conversation(s) with Other Women has precisely that inherently juvenile slant to it, an imagined reencounter with a loved one that is one of the deadest of all romantic clichés.  It is a tedious cliché because we all want our tales of romance and release to have meant something in our narrow little universes, to have been subjected successfully to the criteria of tragedy and to remain with us like scars only visible from very close up. 
 
And in that imagined future encounter, it is often the case that we have little to say and that we stand staring at that loved one, adrift on distant bliss.  Perhaps even very adrift.  Yet this couple has a lot to say to each other.  What they say may not always be profound, but nothing could be more everyday than coping with private tragedies.  Keeping the dueling debaters anonymous does seem to generalize what they espouse, but it also allows the viewer to re–experience the fundamentality of this battue through our emotions and thoughts.  And when the man says, in self–defense against one of the woman’s many accusations, “it is what it is,” she replies: “Oh, I do hate that expression.  It reminds me of death.”  Twelve years of death to be more specific.      

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