A Split-Screen View of Love

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I love split screen. I didn't know that until recently, when I became that most pathetic of cultural victims — a 24 addict. All those paranoids simultaneously plotting one another's destruction in far-flung locations, yet unaware of what, specifically, the other guys and gals are up—except activities that will, by the end of the episode, result in one or more individuals being prettily tied up and awaiting some high-tech unpleasantness to be continued (but not necessarily concluded) the following Monday. As a technique, split screen has been around almost since the beginning of the movies. Although it has often been used merely for flashy effect, it is the only method of efficiently imparting simultaneously occurring events. And those are done in ways that can, potentially at least, enhance suspense — which always depends on the audience knowing in advance the bad, impending stuff.

Split screen is generally a sometime thing in movies and television, since endlessly divided attention grows tiresome in large doses. On the other hand, the news that Conversations with Other Women — all 84 minutes of it — was to be shot entirely in split-screen filled me with unreasoning anticipation. It has been done before, but it's always fun to watch someone (in this case director Hans Canosa) pushing an envelope, even one that doesn't entirely aware need a shove.

But the film is essentially a two-person conversation with a little lovemaking thrown in, taking place in one small hotel room over the course of a few short hours. There is — utterly, totally, completely — no reason to show "Man" (Aaron Eckhart) and "Woman" (Helena Bonham Carter) in anything but conventional movie terms. I mean, why would you bother to split the screen when they are basically standing (or occasionally lying) next to one another in cramped quarters?

Ah, comes the imagined cineaste reply, to symbolize the existential distance between them, the ineluctable difference between man and woman. Or should one say "Man" and "Woman"? To which my reply is unprintable on a family dotcom. OK, their tale involves a few flashbacks (involving other actors playing younger versions of themselves), and a few brief intrusions on their privacy by small-parts actors, but there is no reason for these matters not to be handled in the time-honored way.

M and W meet at at a mutual friend's wedding, where she is a late-starting bridesmaid and he's a bemused onlooker. It quickly becomes apparent that they share a past and a little less quickly we learn that, yes, they were once married. Not long after we discover that neither has any particular objection to a roll in the hay, just for old time's sake and just so long as its over and done with before she has to catch her early morning flight home.

Well, why not? Their divorce was amicable (she has remarried and lives in London, he's in a committed relationship with a young actress) and they still kind of amuse each other. No great drama ensues from their coupling. And no flashing insights, either — although both notice that their bodies are not quite as taut as they once were. It's a wistful and genially played little piece, which ends with M and W parting ziplessly (as we used to say back in the 70s) by dawn's early light. You have to wonder why anyone thought it was necessary to weigh down what is essentially a weightless little fairy tale with a lot of self-important, even self-aggrandizing, technique. 24 it was never going to be. But on a warm summer's night, when you're in the mood for a romantic anecdote, that might have been a pleasing little gesture.