Did I say that I loathe you?
Did I say that I want to
Leave it all behind?
—Damien Rice, “Blower’s Daughter”
To stare directly at [sex] is to be wasting most of what’s available in drama and in film: the resonances, the things you don’t see but that affect people’s behavior.
—Mike Nichols, Time, 24 November 2004
During the first moments of Closer, Alice (Natalie Portman) walks in slow motion on a sidewalk. She comes closer to you, her hair brightly dyed, her hips swaying, and frankly, she’s a vision. At that moment, she spotted by Dan (Jude Law), who appears on this same London street, walking toward her, also in slow motion. He catches her eye, they exchange shy smiles, they pause. And then she strides of the curb, straight into the path of an oncoming taxi. He rushes to her collapsed body, she looks up, concussed, dazed, and lovely: “Hello, stranger,” she asserts.
It’s a shrewd introduction for Mike Nichols’ film, setting in motion the start-stop rhythms of the relationships under its lens, that is, two intersecting couples whose collisions, attractions, and discords will prove increasingly painful for all involved, including you. Come to find out, as Dan accompanies Alice to the emergency room, that he is an obit writer and aspiring novelist.
Plainly intrigued by this wondrous girl just arrived from New York (who is not unlike the wondrous girl Portman played for Zach Braff’s Garden State, that is, quirky, insightful, and slightly sad), Dan impresses her by taking her to Postman’s Park, where weather-worn stone plaques bear the names of people who died saving someone else. This setting underlines again the film’s inclination to connect ideas—death, generosity, responsibility, and deceit (more on this later). As others have noted, Closer adopts the cynical (sometimes close to clinical) tone often ascribed to Neil LaBute’s work (though his studies of needy, fraught, wildly vulnerable adults tend to be more complicated than this).
As he gazes on Alice during this afternoon’s enchantment, Dan appears quite the smitten and even admirable chap, charming and genuine enough. As this is a Nichols film, however, it’s not long before Dan—and everyone else, at some point or another—behaves quite badly. Whether he does this out of callow egotism or earnest passion for the next woman he meets (or at least, the next one with whom you see him) is not so clear. Cutting around in time and relationships, the movie doesn’t consider motivations so much as causes and effects—hurt, revenge, desire, recklessness. 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. If this premise sounds old, it is. In fact, Closer is of a thematic piece with Nichols’ other work (say, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Carnal Knowledge), less concerned with conventional morality than grasping petulance. Here again, white, well-to-do urbanites repeatedly act out like children, desperate to achieve their desires in order to declare themselves grown up.
Such repetition is more troublesome in another way, namely, the film’s overly familiar, even banal, presumptions about gender roles: men worry about property, women about commitment. And everyone’s twitted out about Alice’s profession pre-Dan, namely, stripping. This leads to titillation, judgment, desire, and commerce all around. How Howard Stern.
Alice’s-work-as-a-point-of-concern emerges when the film cuts ahead to Dan’s brief moment of potential success. Not surprisingly, this is also the moment when he launches into what will become ongoing treachery and insidious self-interest. Inspired by Alice’s stripping stories (at least the ones she tells him), he’s written a novel, and his publisher sends him to get a promotional portrait photo taken, by Anna (Julia Roberts). Apparently feeling restless under the pressure of Alice’s devotion (“No one,” she asserts, “will ever love you like I do”; and everyone, you think, has heard that line before), Dan sits for his portrait and flirts furiously. She returns the volley, though their exchange is less convincing than stagy, as if the scene is checking off clever literary techniques; she explains that for her exhibits, she shoots “strangers,” he asks if he’s a stranger, and she says, “No, you’re a job”—all harking back, of course, to the first scene, when Alice calls Dan a “stranger.” (Self-referential: check.)
The scene that follows is the film’s most moving, precisely because it is the moist underplayed. Alice arrives to pick up Dan and, having secretly overheard his truly obnoxious efforts to pick up Anna, sends him on his way so she can have her own picture taken, and also speak with the new object of his affection. Under cover of discussing Anna’s art, they also talk about 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 at the same time. The film never recovers from or repeats such brittle poignancy. Rather, it devolves into a series of opposite-gender matches, increasingly unsubtle.
The second male enters via the internet (and how conventionally appropriately this is, given the movie’s investment in exposing relational coldness, distance, and pretense). Larry (Clive Owen) is a dermatologist seeking sexual distractions on his office machine, and 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, she hooks up with Larry, a masculine sort who tends to hulk in doorways and adore his woman wholly. (Except when he’s being a stereotypical brute and tearing into her about sleeping with Dan, which she continues to do throughout their courtship and into the early days of their marriage.) Weary of the entire commitment saga, Anna is doubly tired of both her men’s fretting about her sexual activities. “Men are crap,” she tells Dan on their first meeting, and she never appears to think otherwise.
All the cheating and avenging leaves Alice—the youngest participant, with the pinkest hair—looking forlorn and quite put upon. 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.