Does anyone else find it odd that two of the most common themes in literature are divorce and adultery, yet they rarely appear in films anymore? Hollywood is always about the quirky couple, the budding romance, and the inevitable airport scene. I mean, I enjoy a good Cusackian love story as much as the next guy, but there’s more truth in one great tale of adultery or the breakup of a marriage than all of Cameron Crowe and Nora Ephron’s films combined. Even this summer’s Vince Vaughn/Jennifer Aniston flick, The Break-Up — which failed on almost every level — still possessed more honesty about the human condition than probably any other film released this summer. And the one thing that irked me about other reviews for it was that so many critics wondered why we’d want to go to the movies to watch someone else fight. Well, that was the only goddamn thing I wanted to see in The Break-Up because — sans the witty retorts and the Vince Vaughn boom-shake — the reasoning behind not wanting to wash the dishes was the one goddamn thing with which I could identify.
And yet, the last two great films about real “adult” issues that I can remember were both released in the same month, two years ago: The Door in the Floor and one of the best infidelity movies I’ve ever seen, We Don’t Live Here Anymore. I suppose I understand the reasoning behind the dearth of adult-oriented flicks; there’s not a lot of commercial appeal to a movie that’s difficult to watch, that hurts in a way you don’t really want to hurt, and that eschews escapism in favor of dense conversations about one’s motivation to sleep with someone else. But I think there is so much more to learn about oneself and one’s relationship by watching someone else’s gradually fall apart onscreen, and I just wish that the studios had more courage and audiences had a stronger sensibility for stomaching a movie about the unmaking, the remaking, or the failed remaking of a couple that doesn’t end each sentence with a punchline. After all, most of us experience great relationships only once or twice in our lives, and yet we all seem to suffer through countless bad ones.
Conversations with Other Women is one of those films with excellent leads but zero box-office potential; it is an “adult” film in the strictest sense and, unless you’ve suffered through your own failed long-term relationships, it holds little appeal. In fact, even for those who have, I suppose it’s hard to get worked up enough to run to the multiplex simply because you can identify with a divorced couple seemingly incapable of finding closure, which is probably why Conversations only opened on 13 screens and will most likely disappear from those by next weekend.
Conversations starts out innocently enough with an unnamed man (Aaron Eckhart) approaching an unnamed woman (Helena Bonham Carter) at a wedding that’s winding down. On its face, it appears only that he wants to get laid, and that she may or may not share a similar train of thought. It’s his sister getting married, and she’s only attending the wedding out of morbid curiosity, because her ex-husband is in attendance. She is remarried to cardiologist, and he is in an empty relationship with a girl named Sarah (“a poem, in two syllables”), who’s half his age. The flirtation between these two goes on for quite a while, and it is mostly clever. But there is an odd sense of animosity and affection in their banter, and a weird subtext that isn’t at first clear, until it is gradually revealed that they once knew each other. In fact, “he” is actually “her” ex-husband.
Once this fact becomes clear, the conversation gains a new sense of levity. They are meeting for the first time since their divorce, some 10 years ago. We are not privy to the details of their marriage’s demise, but two things seem certain: They were both quite in love with each other, and the divorce was painful for both parties. I suspect the best way to encapsulate their relationship is this: It is as though Jesse and Celine from Linklater’s Before Sunrise finally got hitched, divorced several years later, and then met again a decade thereafter. The conversation, in fact, has a very similar feel to that of Linklater’s Before Sunrise/Sunset films, though there is little sense of optimism, and the tiny pangs of hurt build as post-divorce revelations are made.
It’s difficult to describe the incumbent feelings the two are experiencing in a movie review. But you can probably imagine what it might feel like to meet an ex-spouse many years later. There is an overwhelming feeling of ownership, I would imagine. As in, you feel like you know this person, you own a history together, and yet all of that is betrayed by the intervening decade of experience. Your ex, whom you once spent each night of your life with, is now married to someone else and, though you have moved on with your life, you might still feel an inextricable bond via that shared relationship. And I suppose that, in a very primeval sense, you’d want to remark your territory. Or you’d want closure. Or the things you once loved about the person would resurge, and the things that led to the failure of the relationship would have been erased by time. Or maybe it’s all of this. I dunno. But, it’s all very tied up in the conversations between “him” and “her.”
I suspect that, for a certain class of people with ex-spouses, Conversations with Other Women is infinitely relatable. Divorce, without children, obviously results in a weird death of a relationship, especially if you don’t share the same friends. And meeting many years later, I can imagine it feels as though a ghost of it has resurfaced, affording you an opportunity to say all the things you wanted to say, to find out what has happened since, and — of course — to fleetingly re-experience that once great love, unburdened by consequence, which is exactly what he and she do here. However, there are no tears, no histrionics, and no melodramatics. It’s just conversation. But it’s no less affecting.
I should also mention the conceit behind Conversations with Other Women, because clearly even a good story in the indie world cannot get made without a conceit. Hans Canosa, who directs the film, actually splits the screen for the entire running time. Though it is somewhat grating at first, it ultimately works, allowing the audience to see each side of the conversation as it happens without having to break away for a reaction shot. There is a lot going on in each actor’s face of one side of the equation while the other is speaking, and both Eckhart and Bonham-Carter take excellent advantage of the opportunity to emote. In fact, though both Eckhart and Bonham-Carter have a string of great performances behind them, there’s a heartbreaking nuance in their split-screen performances here that rises to a level unmatched in either’s previous work. It’s a goddamn shame no one will see either side.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives in a blue house with his wife in a hippie colony/college town in upstate New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.There's Still a Little Bit of Your Taste in My Mouth
Film Reviews | August 16, 2006 | Comments ()