Not a War
Closer begins with an accident. Alice (Natalie Portman) walks in slow motion on a sidewalk, coming closer to you, her hair dyed bright red, her hips swaying, her slight smile as she seems to spot you almost unbearable seductive. At the same time, you see who she’s really spotted, walking toward her from the opposite direction, the handsome Dan (Jude Law). He catches her eye, looks away, smiles back. They reach their respective curbs and look for traffic. She’s an American, it turns out, and so looks the wrong way (that is, the same way as he does, her right and his left). A second later, she’s smashed by a taxi, the camera cuts to an overhead shot, gazing down on this lovely girl, crumpled on the pavement, right next to an arrow and large, stenciled letters: “LOOK THIS WAY.”
This shrewd introduction sets in motion the start-stop, looking-all-the-wrong-ways rhythms of Closer‘s relationships. These include, of course, Dan and Alice, as well as another couple with whom they intersect and collide, the photographer Anna (Julia Roberts) and dermatologist Larry (Clive Owen). Their coming together and apart drives this “love story for adults,” now released to DVD without extras, save for the music video for Damien Rice’s incredible “Blower’s Daughter.” While this single/video speaks to Closer‘s interests in longing and loss, the film’s version is decidedly crisper and eventually, less evocative.
Dan’s attraction to Alice takes serial forms, as he’s initially enchanted, then bored, then confused. Always, he is self-absorbed, which might be said of all four characters. Adapted by Patrick Marber from his 1997 play, Closer is not so much concerned with judging bad behaviors as revealing, inspecting, and chatting about them. And Alice’s resistance to definition and understanding of the machinations of others—its most profound representation only visible at film’s end—is the film’s most compelling insight.
Most of Closer is focused on these machinations, represented as if Alice is only buffeted. Whether you understand the duplicities as reflections of callow egotism or earnest passion, the film cleverly cuts around in time and relationships, not considering motivations so much as causes and effects—hurt, revenge, desire, recklessness. Too often, these seem connected to familiar, even banal, presumptions about gender roles: men worry about property, women about commitment. Most tediously, everyone becomes unnerved by Alice’s profession pre-Dan, namely, stripping. This leads to titillation, judgment, desire, and commerce all around.
This concern with stripping (made metaphorical as well as literal, as the characters reveal themselves piece by piece) becomes acute when the film cuts ahead to Dan’s brief moment of potential career success. Inspired by Alice’s stripping stories (those she tells him, anyway), he writes a novel, and his publisher sends him to get a promotional portrait photo taken by Anna. He flirts furiously and she returns the volley, though their exchange is less convincing than stagy. She explains that for her exhibits, she only shoots “strangers,” he asks if he’s a stranger, and she says, “No, you’re a job.” They kiss. Enter Alice, coming round to fetch her man. He departs, leaving the girls to sort out their sudden and painful rivalry.
As Portman and Roberts underplay their taut emotional fixes (Portman was nominated for an Oscar for her work in the film), it becomes clear that Alice has secretly overheard the flirtation. When Anna offers to take her photo—Alice being more of a stranger than anyone else in sight—they use a conversation about Anna’s art to discuss stealing lives, lying and cheating. All the while, Anna shoots Alice, both evasive and truthful at once, a striking, final image of Alice’s tear-streaked face, just turned from the window’s gray daylight punctuating the game they’ve been playing and denying simultaneously. The film never recovers from or repeats such brittle poignancy.
This even though Owen brings some welcome darkness as Larry. Aptly, he enters via the internet; seeking sexual distractions on his hospital office machine, he’s enticed by Dan to meet him (posing as a girl who wants to sit on his face) in an aquarium. Here he meets Anna, who figures out Dan’s prank and hardly minds, even if Larry is bothered, at first (“Why do I feel like a pervert?”). Much to Dan’s dismay, Anna hooks up with Larry, a masculine sort who tends to hulk in doorways and adore his woman wholly. While Alice feels increasingly rejected, Anna wearies of both men’s competitive investments in her sexual activities. “Men are crap,” she tells Dan on their first meeting, and she never appears to think otherwise, even as they act out their simultaneous devotion to and disdain for her, as a woman, that is, an object to be claimed.
All the cheating and avenging leaves Alice looking forlorn. This especially during one of the film’s designed-to-outrage set pieces, when Larry goes to see her at the London strip club where she lands following her break-up with Dan. Their confrontation in a “private room,” lays out their limits. Demanding that she confess her “real name” (her supposed stage name being “Jane”), he also wants to know if she “wants” him, as they are at that moment, fellow dumpees, and he’s feeling vengeful if not precisely desirous.
Tossing money at her, staring up at her mostly naked body from his customer’s sofa (and eventually, into her vagina), he grumps: “You think because you don’t desire us, you’ve won?” She poses, coy as she’s paid to be, before she answers, “It’s not a war.” You’d like to think that Alice is right, even as Closer insists that it is.