Closer (2004): Nichols’ Anatomy of Sexual Politics of Modern Relationships, Starring Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, and Natalie Portman

A serio-comic look at modern relationships, Closer examines the intimate lives of four strangers–their chance meetings, instant attractions, sexual obsessions, and painful betrayals.

Mike Nichols’s sharply entertaining film is based on Patrick Marber’s play, which premiered in London in 1997 and was then staged in more than 100 cities around the world. The look and heart of the film is present-day, realistic London, not the touristy, picture postcard city seen in most movies.

Nichols has explored the web of tangled relationships–the sexual battle between men and woman–in most of his films. As an anatomy of modern relationships, Closer continues his explorations of love and sex in such movies as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge, and Heartburn.

Closer is most directly linked to Carnal Knowledge, which was based on Jules Feiffer’s funny and powerful satire. Spanning three decades in the lives of two buddies, Carnal Knowledge is a more ambitious film than Closer, but it’s also more flawed. Unlike Carnal Knowledge, in which the two men are at the center from beginning to end, and the female characters are secondary, Closer grants equal time to its four characters, the two males and two females. It’s hard to tell whether Closer will be as controversial as Carnal Knowledge three decades ago, when it appeared in the midst of the sexual revolution and women’s lib.

The basic premise of Closer is that most people remember better the beginnings and endings of their affairs than their middles, which they tend to edit out. The beginnings of affairs are so highly charged and erotically exciting that the process of falling-in-love often becomes a substitute for love itself. It’s a prevalent syndrome in both straight and gay relationships, in which scoring becomes more important than maintaining stable relationships with all the messiness and ups and downs involved.

This premise works well for a dramatic narrative, since the middles are never as exciting as the beginnings or as painful as the endings.

At the start of the story, Anna (Julia Roberts), a successful photographer and a recent divorcee, meets Dan (Jude Law) when she takes photos of him. Smitten by him, she begins an affair with Dan, which continues secretly even after her marriage to Larry (Clive Owen), a handsome, self-assured dermatologist.

An aspiring novelist who earns a living as a journalist of obituaries, Dan is the closest to a protagonist the story has–it’s through him that the other personae are introduced. Dan is the catalyst for much of the action. A frustrated novelist, Dan is living in a cocoon, until he accidentally meets Alice (Natalie Portman) on the street. Alice, a free spirit who can just pick up and go with her backpacker, becomes his muse, and through her he begins to blossoms. But there are signs that their relationship is doomed from the start.

Alice is the film’s most fascinating character. As interpreted by Natalie Portman, in a breakthrough performance, she’s the most sensual too. Alone when she comes to London from New York, Alice has to create a world for herself. But she also has this childlike facet; she’s honest and direct in her feelings, which distinguishes her from the other characters, which are more calculated.

Closer is an intense anatomy of love and desire, fidelity and betrayal, the lies we tell ourselves and those around us, the ways we use and abuse others as sex objects in order to fulfill our needs and feed our frail, insecure egos, the need for intimacy that we all seek, secretly and unconsciously. The film’s subtext, however, is more interesting and ambiguous, beginning with the title, which is open to a wide range of interpretations.

Is the quartet of characters trying to be closer to each other, to their inner selves, to the truth There’s also ambiguity and mystery in trying to figure out what happens in the periods of time that the story skips, large gap of several months or a year between scenes.

Though we get a direct glance at the two women and their feelings and desires, ultimately, a male gaze dominates the text. In its central theme and tight male gaze, Closer bears some resemblance to Husbands, and more recently to Neil LaBute’s darkly humorous satire, In the Company of Men. With varying degrees of honesty, all of these works focus on uniquely male phobias and sexual jealousy.

The film is narrowly focused. With the exception of a handful of scenes, in which the characters are seen at their work environment (Alice in a strip club, Anna at her photo-studio, Larry at his office), most of what they talk and joke about is sex, down to the grittiest detail, as when Larry asks Anna whether Dan is better in bed However, within its narrow-minded frame, Closer delves deeper into relationships than most American films.

Problem is, in sensibility, Closer is still a play, a piece of well-staged, stylized cinema-theater. Nichols chose not to open up the tightly-woven work with outdoor scenes. He remains faithful to the text and to Marber’s humor, which is smart, informed, and often heartbreaking. What makes the drama more cinematic is the way it is acted, shot, and edited. The story spans four years, though it doesn’t follow a chronological order.  The structure is circular and Nichols is smart enough not to insert cards indicating the changes of time.

A four-character film, Closer devotes itself exclusively to a single subject, sexual action. Thematically, the movie makes no moral judgments about the characters, allowing the viewers latitude to make their own assessment. At various points, each of the four characters engages in good/bad and moral/immoral conduct. The film conveys how certain people behave when they are threatened and under pressure.

Structurally, the narrative unfolds as the intertwining story of two couples, whose relationships evolve and devolve as part of the competition between the two men for each of the women at different times. Larry and Dan become each other’s nemeses; two men engaged in brutal ego plays. At times, it’s more important for them to screw over the other guy than to get the woman they love.

Nichols’s touch is precise and impressive with its emphasis on the witty dialogue and tight focus on the characters. Virtually every scene has a definite emotional pitch. The mood often changes from scene to scene, and within scenes, ranging from the romantic to the erotic to the sexual to the dangerously obsessive and destructive.

The intense scenes are based on push and pull forces. The characters either open up and offer themselves to someone, or close themselves up and try to get rid of someone. Every scene in Closer is rife with a different kind of tension, and the sets and lighting reflect the intensity of the dialogue and the claustrophobia of the interactions

Despite its risqu elements, Closer is a morality tale about getting lost in relationships, and losing sight. However, for the film to be effective, it’s important that we viewers, like the characters, swap allegiances and keep empathizing and sympathizing with different sides. But, alas, it doesn’t happen in this film, and the challenge of humanizing hostile and vulgar behavior is only partially met by Nichols.

Unlike Carnal Knowledge, which speculated about the origins of the men’s sexual fantasies, stemming from affluent post WWII middle-class America, Closer doesn’t ask about the origins of sexual attitudes, instead assuming they exist. Their defeats, confusions, and occasional adjustments are also a reaction of 40 years of social and political history

Closer seems to be a precise and funny film, in which warmth and lovability are beside the point. Though elegantly shot, there is no decorum of conduct, but rather a portrait of unbridled desire and messy sexuality. The film is merciless toward both men and women in trying to reach some understanding–but no explanation their capacities for self-delusion, and casual infliction of pain. Limiting their conduct to a single aspect of human experience, Nichols has made a darkly humorous movie that in its observations is more profound than other, more serious films. Comedy techniques are used to illuminate material that might otherwise seem too cruel for a dramatic feature

Hopefully, critics will not freight an essentially unpretentious film about the sexual battle of men vs. women with the very pretenses it seeks to avoid. Closer also runs the risk of being over-praised for what it is not–a generational statement. It’s silly to claim that Closer represents an accurate dissection of contemporary romance. The four characters, though representative of broader types, are individuals with particular histories and specific needs that evolve and transform, reflecting changes in their lives.