Some weeks I gamble with this column. I don’t know what to write about, so I wait in the stupid assurance that something will turn up. This happened on the night of Sunday May 27. I was remoting through the television channels, somewhere in the 500s, when I was stopped by the stricken indigo holes of Helena Bonham Carter’s eyes. The film was only a few minutes old, and I had never seen it before, so I stayed with it. It was called Conversations with Other Women, though on the poster the word is Conversations (s).
We are at a wedding in a Manhattan hotel. A man and a woman meet. They will have no names as the film progresses, but he is American and Aaron Eckhart and she is English and Bonham Carter. They are both married, but their spouses are not at the wedding. In 2005, when this film opened, Eckhart was 37 and Bonham Carter was two years older. That’s about how their characters feel, as they remember a youthful love affair they shared at least fifteen years earlier.
The film is just the night of the wedding and their parting in the morning. Almost without speaking about it, they realize they are going to sleep together, though there is little sense on the woman’s part that this fling will lead to a new life, escape, or renewal of the old passion. There is nothing like catching a movie about which you know nothing. The remote slipped out of my hand; I was hooked to the screen, to the film’s sense of time and place and risk, to the intelligence of the talk and the intimations of pleasure and regret in Bonham Carter’s performance. Not that Eckhart was less than good: He nicely conveyed the hippy spontaneity of his younger self—for the film includes many rapid cutaways to the kids’ affair.
I wasn’t sure what I felt about those cutaways, though I wished the movie had been concentrated enough to do without them. Worse was to follow. When at last the grown-ups do make love in her hotel room, the sequence is done in split screen: There are two images all the time, both different views of this couple, and the modern sex scene cut against the romping of the kids. I don’t like split screen, whether it’s Napoleon or The Thomas Crown Affair, even if on this occasion it was employed to allow a little more discretion to the players in the sex scene. But I liked the picture enough to forgive this failing, and then after the sex it returned to the conversation, as if knowing that the heart of any romantic encounter (and even the reason why we attempt it) is the chance to have a special conversation.
The split screen returned at the end: The two of them are sitting in the backs of separate taxis, returning to their lives. It’s crushingly neat, although I think the split screen line dissolves away at the very end so they’re both in the same cab.
When the screening was finished I looked the film up and wondered how I had missed it. Conversations with Other Women had its premiere at Telluride in 2005 and it played several other festivals. It won a few prizes, for Bonham Carter, and for the team of film-makers: director Hans Canosa and writer Gabrielle Zevin. I discovered that they are or were life partners, that they both went to Harvard, that she is a novelist and that they have done two other films, Alma Mater (2002) and Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac (2010), which seems never to have played in this country and which was made in Japan and a mixture of English and Japanese.
I found out something else. When Conversations was released commercially in 2006, to limited business (it cost $450,000 and grossed about twice that) the whole film was in split screen. Several critics at the time had admired the film, but nearly everyone found the split screen obtrusive and unnecessary. I wondered if I had been asleep, for the film I saw on Sunday had only two split-screen sequences—in fact there was a third (the opening credits) which I had missed as a late arrival. What happened apparently is that in 2007 the film was re-cut for DVD and television showings so that most of the split screen was removed.
That mercy uncovers a picture as touching as David Lean’s Brief Encounter, though better still because these people are more sophisticated and they do have and admit to sexual appetites. I assume the re-cutting was done by the director and the writer, and I think it was an enlightened move. It presents a film about an infidelity in which the two parties are not just reluctant but helpless; they are drawn into recognizing the fatal mistakes of time that afflict us in life. The sex is renewed in the hotel, as if the couple had no power to say “no,” but their memories show them how futile and temporary the renewal is. The love they had—shallow and quick—seems perfect in the past. But now they are better or wiser people who know how far they are alone.
That Conversations with Other Women (it’s a misleading title) has moments of unforgettable pathos is due largely to the way the film exposes the emotional intelligence in the woman as if by surgery. When her career began, Helena Bonham Carter seemed an oddity: petite, pretty, well-spoken, and as right for Masterpiece Theatre type films as an elegant armchair, but as dull. She was as missable in many early films as a chair: because you’re sitting in it you don’t see it. But her Kate Croy in Iain Softley’s The Wings of the Dove (1997) opened my eyes. It was not just that she was so naked and beautiful in that film; it was the courage and casualness with which she let physical nakedness reveal an inner fatalism. Carter was nominated, but Helen Hunt won for As Good As It Gets, a film that denied its own title.
I no longer notice that she is tiny. I only feel the size of her ambition. She still does some silly or inexplicable films (she is with Tim Burton in life and accompanies him to work). But when she is challenged she is amazing: as Marina Oswald in Fatal Deception, in Fight Club, The Heart of Me (from a Rosamond Lehmann novel) and even in Sweeney Todd (forget her singing—she was the sexiest Mrs. Lovett ever) and now this discovery and this tribute to second thoughts.
What has happened to Canosa and Zevin? I don’t know. But if they’d go one step further and excise the last remaining split-screen stuff, they’d have a film with a kind of modest, forlorn greatness.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.