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MOVIE REVIEW

An oddly moving tete-a-tete

The wedding reception is winding down. The smooth 30 ish bachelor (Aaron Eckhart), perhaps having steeled himself with champagne, wanders over to the attractively embittered bridesmaid (Helena Bonham Carter) hovering at a back table. He charms, she parries, he ripostes. We can guess where this is going. Or can we?

The charm of ``Conversations With Other Women," a gimmicky but oddly moving two-character drama that flies in from who knows where, is its intelligentknowingness. The couple at the film's center -- we never do learn their names -- is well aware of the pleasures and dangers of the path on which they're about to embark. They know the rules of engagement, and they know when to break them. ``The illusion of effortlessness takes great effort indeed," sighs the bridesmaid, and, brother, she ain't kidding. That brittle weariness extends to both sides of the camera.

As the film moves from banquet hall to elevator to hotel room, there are certain things we learn about He and She that deepen the tale -- that tilt it toward farce on one hand and small tragedy on the other. The delicate balancing act is embodied in the movie's chief formal device: The whole darn thing has been shot in split screen.

Cued by an observant, epigrammatic script by Gabrielle Zevin, director-editor Hans Canosa divides the image in half, but not for strict he said/she said purposes. Most of the time we see the action (and by ``action" I mean ``talk") from separate but closely aligned, occasionally overlapping perspectives -- much as two potential lovers might see the world.

Just as often, though, one screen stays with the couple while the other looks in on their significant others, or on a possibly shared past that may actually be a fantasy of missed chances. ``Conversations With Other Women" at times feels like a third leg in Richard Linklater's ``Before Sunrise"/ ``Before Sunset" relay race, but there's the possibility the leg the film is pulling belongs to the audience. Who's the bigger romantic here (and thus the greater fool) -- he or she or us?

A movie this precisely constructed risks being merely clever, and, sure enough, the oxygen starts to run out in the final scenes of ``Conversation s ." What could be a self-conscious acting exercise, though, is kept in the air by Eckhart and especially Bonham Carter. He lets us see the vanity and fear under the unruffled exterior, as well as the naivete : While the characters are the same age, she correctly notes ``I feel like you're a little boy and I'm an older woman."

As for Bonham Carter, Tim Burton movies and new motherhood have kept her from wandering of late into roles like this, which is our loss. Always a vivid actress, she gets more interesting with each passing year -- more adept at conveying undercurrents of passion, knowledge, wit, dread. Age genuinely becomes Carter, unlike most of her bland Hollywood peers, and I'm beginning to think we haven't seen her best work yet.

``Conversations With Other Women" isn't her best work, but it's a small, tart appetizer for what may yet come: an amuse - bouche flavored with regret.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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