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August 9-15, 2006

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'Conversations With Other Women'

Man vs. Woman: Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter.

Chat Room

The screen splits wide open in Hans Canosa's 'Conversations With Other Women'

By Richard von Busack

LIKE THE AFFAIR it records, director Hans Canosa's Conversations With Other Women is brief and embarrassing. The time is now, the place is New York City, but the tone is very Noel Coward—a civilized couple confronting adultery. These two bittersweet lovers aren't actually cohabitating. "Woman" (Helena Bonham Carter) flew in to be a bridesmaid for an old friend she scarcely knows. The brother of the bride ("Man," played by Aaron Eckhart) steers Woman back to her hotel room after the wedding. In bed, they can't escape the hold other people have on them. They also can't escape their mutual past. Evasive dialogue and flashbacks show how much these two once meant to one another.

For the first time since 2000's Time Code (showing Friday at ZeroOne—isn't synchronicity scary?), an indie filmmaker uses a split screen for the entire length of a film. It's a technique that should always be used in small doses. Split screen marginalizes the actors, pushing them to side of the frame. It suggests the work of a weak-nerved director, who couldn't choose an image to focus upon. The bifurcated screen has one natural place: in the lovemaking scene, where we see how today's tryst reflects the love the couple had when they were younger. And Canosa has supervised a truly gifted feat of casting. Nora Zehetner (the femme fatale in Brick) plays the Young Woman. When Zehetner and Bonham Carter lie head to head on two different beds, separated by so many years, they look very much like older and younger versions of the same person.

Novelist Gabrielle Zevin is Canosa's partner, and she might have had more luck turning the work into a play. Note the almost rhetorical asides: "I wonder what two lonely people do in a hotel room when nobody's looking." And the script has the scent of revenge on it. In the lover's quarrel, Woman always has the upper hand. When she goads Man, he takes it smilingly, calmly. That's the Noel Coward streak. And when they go to bed, it's as if they've been married for years. They practically put on pajamas first.

How to put this gently? Forty-year-olds have cooler blood than 20-year-olds, but there's still some heat left. There's no reason a writer has to be the same age as her characters, but Zevin isn't 30 yet. She doesn't really have a feel for the particular vanities and regrets of the middle-aged. To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, the middle-aged are soft in places where the young are hard, and hard in places where the young are soft.

Coping with motives that aren't in the script, the two actors try to fill the blank space with their personalities. It's acting they've done before. Eckhart is another trapped fox someone is trying to turn into a lapdog. Bonham Carter is another jitterer, a bomb with a lit cigarette for a fuse. I have longed to see Bonham Carter in an adult role after her many years turning up in Tim Burton's films. I love Burton, but his actors end up as cogs in his crazy machinery. Playing Zevin's conception of a woman who has it all, Bonham Carter radiates the kind of queenliness that made audiences start to hate Joan Crawford.

Movie Times Conversations With Other Women (R; 84 min.), directed by Hans Canosa, written by Gabrielle Zevin, photographed by Steve Yedlin and starring Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart, opens Aug. 11 at CinéArts Santana Row.

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