Tue 29 Aug 2006
A split screen format–where a screen is divided into two and sometimes more rectangles, with different action occurring in each–is much more common in music videos and commercials than feature length films. Director Mike Figgis used a four-square split screen in his 2000 movie Timecode, as he showed what was happening in four different places at the same time. The Bolivian film Sexual Dependency divided its Cinemascope widescreen into two parts, though the rationale was never clear to me. And Peter Greenaway has dabbled with multiple screens in a couple of his films.
But if you’ve seen any of those films, you’ll know why its use is limited. It’s hard to watch for any length of time. Paying attention to two completely different things on the screen is challenging, and the filmmakers also have the difficult task of deciding how to integrate sound into the multiple visuals.
Conversations with Other Women is the first split-screen film I’ve seen that really works [the above photo is not an example of the split-screen used in the film]. It’s the story of a man (Aaron Eckhart) and a woman (Helena Bonham Carter) who meet at a wedding reception. She’s a bridesmaid, though she seems older than everyone else in the party. He’s a suave-looking man on the prowl. He notices her fidgeting and trying to find a place to smoke, and he decides to make his move.
The split-screen approach allows us to see both characters at the same time, noticing how he reacts to her and her to him. My friend Garth found it all a bit disorienting at first, but you get used to it, and the benefits are significant. For starters, the movie is, for all intents and purposes, a long conversation. By showing the woman and man in separate screens, we can watch both aspects of the conversation, the one who’s talking and the one who’s listening and reacting.
This is a great vehicle for Eckhart and Carter, who remind us of why they’re two of the best actors working today. Eckhart brings the same charm and guile to this role that he did in his star-making turn in Thank You for Smoking. But as the film goes on, his suave demeanor turns out to be the facade of a needy man desperate for affection. Carter hasn’t had a role this meaty since Wings of the Dove, and she nails it as a woman who’s both flattered by the attention and wise enough to know that a one-night stand can’t possibly be the right choice.
As the movie continues past the initial conversation, we realize that these two aren’t strangers at all. They were lovers in much younger days, and that recognition brings a depth to their relationship. And it’s here where director Hans Canosa’s decision to use a split screen really pays off. For instead of focusing just on Eckhart and Carter, he sometimes uses half of the screen to portray the two in that early relationship (played by Erik Eidem and Nora Zehetner).
Initially, these scenes are just visual accompaniment to the stories Eckhart and Carter are remembering in their dialogue. But as that conversation moves to Carter’s hotel room, the scenes of the young couple become a counterpoint to what the older couple are doing, and that contrast provides a much richer subtext to the narrative. As Eckhart and Carter talk about sex in their current lives, the other side of the screen shows their younger care-free sexual shenanigans. The themes of first love and love lost are familiar ones to most movie audiences, but by combining the two, Canosa and screenwriter Gabrielle Levin add an emotional depth that’s often missing in romantic dramas.
The movie is also served well by its decision to focus on just one evening. That allows the story to develop naturally. The lead-up to the possible sexual encounter is convincing because of the time it takes and the way the conversation builds rather than lurches. The dialogue also has a sophistication about it that’s reminiscent of classic Hollywood days, though part of that might be due to Eckhart and Carter’s exquisite line readings. Yet, because of the split screen, we also have a connection to a much earlier time and the emotions it brings.
My friend Garth often complains that they don’t make movies for people older than 25 anymore. That may be mostly true, but Conversations with Other Women is a strong alternative to the summer’s blockbuster fare.
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