Sophie O’Sullivan examines the smouldering legacy of Nichols’ romantic drama.
Mike Nichols’ Closer (2004) is a seductive study into indulgent adult relationships in a world which unrealistically accommodates whatever the heart desires.
Closer revolves around the intertwined love affairs of four characters. Jude Law plays Dan, a frustrated writer, who has settled for publishing obituaries in a London newspaper. Natalie Portman plays Alice, a self-confessed ‘waif’, claiming to be an ex-stripper fleeing a failed relationship. Julia Roberts is Anna, a sophisticated divorcee photographer, and Clive Owen is Larry, a perverse dermatologist.
The film opens to Damien Rice’s ‘The Blower’s Daughter’. A disheveled Dan spots a strikingly youthful Alice across a busy street. Rice’s “can’t take my eyes off you” echoes between them until Alice accidentally steps out into the traffic, only to come to in Dan’s arms, whispering provocatively, “Hello, stranger.” This first meet-cute sets the tone of the film: four characters apparently swayed by the tides of love, while also being very much in control of their wants and desires.
As the plot unfolds a complicated love quadrangle is formed. Skipping to the future, Dan has written a book based on Alice’s life, but tries to seduce beautiful photographer Anna, while she photographs him for the book jacket. Alice catches him but, instead of confronting Dan, corners Anna – who claims to be “no thief”. Frustrated by Anna’s rejection, and clueless of Alice’s knowledge, Dan conducts a vengeful windup. Posed as Anna, he catfishes Larry on an online sex website, persuading him to meet at a local aquarium he knows Anna frequents. When Anna and Larry do bump into each other, Larry’s sexual references leave Anna perplexed, until she, slightly implausibly, works out Dan is to blame.
These first scenes are almost agonisingly manipulative. Dan is unbearably sleazy, and one nearly feels sorry for Alice. Anna has clearly met her match in Dan as she restrains herself from his advances. Larry, on the other hand, appears slightly ridiculous from the start. Nonetheless, eventually they all show themselves to be as bad as one another. Each is astonishingly self-absorbed: Alice, a compulsive liar; Anna chronically disloyal; Dan pathetically manipulating and manipulated; and Larry never loses the perverse tone with which his character is first introduced.
The characters also all exist in strikingly privileged setups – allowing them to throw their weight around to their hearts desire. No one, other than Alice, ever express concerns for finance or work, whilst Alice relishes the currency of youth. This leads to an intriguingly unrestrained exploration of the selfish whims of adult desire – however suspiciously unrealistic.
Throughout the restless plotline, the partners swap, have sex and, eventually return to their original matches. The scenes are brief, quickly passing through many years. Each scene is either the beginning or the end of a relationship, tantalising the audience, but never satisfying them with the indulgence of the actual romance. In this mirroring of the characters’ infatuation with transition, the film tells a story of insincere, pretentious passion, disguised as desire and love.
Sex runs through the veins of this film. The characters are bracingly and acerbically frank in their speech. This climaxes in a raging fight between Anna and Larry. Larry asks “do you like him coming in your face?…What does it taste like?” only for Anna to scream back “it tastes like you but sweeter”. The sexual charge created between these characters is never actually fulfilled: despite frequent discussion and reference, there are no sex scenes at all. It is all the more exciting left to the viewer’s imagination.
Originally a play, Closer retains its theatrical format. Complex dialogue is heavily relied upon and, although this is refreshing from a Hollywood film, the cinematography doesn’t fully justify the move of this piece from play to screen. The plot is unnecessarily contained within the exchanges of the four characters: although some of the settings are visually interesting (a strip club, an art gallery) they act only as backdrop for conversations.
As a voyeuristic exploration of fantasy and desire, Closer is a highly entertaining indulgence. The cast is undeniably strong and there are scenes of great humour and intensity. But as an investigation into realistic relationships, it operates with an improbable lack of moral context – presumably a result of the significant personality flaws of the lead characters. Although this may be validating for anyone who has acted selfishly in love behind the facade of the search for truth, was I left satisfied? Maybe for now, but I’ll be moving on soon.
Closer was screened by UCL Film & TV Society on October 25th.
Billy Elliot will be screened today November 3rd in collaboration with UCL Dance Society.
For future screenings, check out the events on our Facebook page.