by ANTHONY LANE
“Closer” and “House of Flying Daggers.”
Issue of 2004-12-13
The new Mike Nichols film, “Closer,” starts with a man falling in love with Natalie Portman. From this we may assume that the movie is concerned with universal, a-priori truths, although there is a scene in a lap-dancing club when the a-posteriori version comes in handy. The man is Dan (Jude Law), a writer of obituaries for a London newspaper, who wears a hangdog suit as if in half-mourning for his subjects. Portman plays a slip of a thing named Alice, a stripper by profession, just in from New York. If she knew how much soul, as opposed to body, she would be forced to bare in the course of her stay, she might have turned around and flown home.
The next thing we know, the two of them are sharing a full life and a cramped apartment. In fact, we have bounced ahead in time, but at no point in “Closer,” the plot of which unrolls over four years or more, does a title flash up saying “One year on” or “Two weeks later.” The plan, presumably, is not to confuse but to cram—to yank the film away from the romantic decorum that views love as a narrative, with clean beginnings and ends. What we get, instead, is knots of desire, clumped together and hard to tease apart. The first tangle comes when Dan sits for a photographer, Anna (Julia Roberts). They exchange a kiss. From here, Nichols and his screenwriter, Patrick Marber—who has adapted his own play, of the same name—make it their business to erode the sentimental status quo. If you want caring and sharing, forget it. People share here, but they share betrayals and bodily fluids as if they were viral strains. Anna meets a doctor named Larry (Clive Owen) in the blue dusk of an aquarium—an ominous site, for anyone who remembers Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth plotting in front of a fishtank in “The Lady from Shanghai.” Anna marries Larry, but that kiss with Dan was the start of something bad. Larry himself is no angel, and his devilry is destined to leave its mark; once he encounters Alice at a show of Anna’s photographs, another stage is set.
“Closer” began in the theatre, hitting a nerve in more than thirty languages around the world. Language is the battlefield, or the minefield, here—our foursome talk of almost nothing but sex, yet there is no sex, unless you count Alice’s bendy, no-touching display in a professional club—and I would be interested to learn how Anna’s tirade, in which she compares the seminal flavors of our two heroes (“the same as yours, but sweeter”), went down in Serbo-Croatian or Mandarin. Here, I guess, there will be a titillated shudder as Julia Roberts delivers the line: all that sour dirt in the mouth of America’s sweetheart! But the shock will fade, and what really matters is how wretched Roberts seems in the portrayal of a wretched being. Roberts is at her loveliest when she is funny, she is at her funniest when she is happy, and she is never at her happiest in this film. Jude Law, likewise, looks frayed by the wear and tear; you can believe him and Roberts when they’ve had enough, but not, crucially, in the earlier scenes, when they should be engulfing each other and ravenous for more.
All of which leaves Natalie Portman and Clive Owen to carry the show. Portman is becoming hard to cast: her beauty is by now so extreme that its sole purpose is the feeding of obsession. (George Lucas loads her with silly costumes and puddles of makeup, as if to wish the beauty away, to stop it from throwing his sexless galaxy out of whack.) Owen alone, in “Closer,” rises to the challenge, and his scene with Alice in the club is the core of the picture—she in frills and pink wig, he meaty, stubbled, and stripped of cant. Larry scorns his wife when she tags him with “middle-class guilt,” and rightly so; he is a working-class boy made good, and emotionally unafraid—that is why he hits so hard on Alice, whose tears are as brisk as his rages. Toward the end, a snuffling Dan confronts Larry in his office, and I was embarrassed to see how comprehensively Owen, resplendent in tie and pinstripes, wipes the floor with Law, whose voice goes high and husky under the assault. Larry’s gibes are guided like missiles, and the meanest of them is unanswerable: “You writer.”
Given this firepower, why does “Closer”
the movie leave fewer scorchmarks than “Closer” the play?
I saw it in the theatre, with Clive Owen in the part of Dan
(small wonder that his Larry is so triumphant: he knows Dan’s
soft spots all too well), and the impression was one of terrible momentum—four
characters in search of a pileup. The film feels elegant by comparison,
more circular than headlong. At first, the director of photography,
Stephen Goldblatt, reduces London to its harsh constituent grays—steel,
stone, cloud—but before long we are wafting into exhibition spaces
and airy lofts that could be anywhere. My favorite Nichols film is still
“Carnal Knowledge,” whose Jules Feiffer script was as venomous
as Marber’s. The Nichols of 1971, however, was bold and speedy,
keeping pace with Jack Nicholson’s contempt, whereas the more
civilized Nichols of 2004 seems a beat behind the lines, waiting for
peace or charity to break out. They never do. As for the funniest sequence,
when Dan visits an anonymous sex-chat Web site and, pretending to be
a woman (“Blonde. Epic tits”), cyber-seduces a gullible
Larry, all we get is meek, over-the-shoulder shots of their screens,
whereas onstage the entire backdrop was illuminated, until our field
of vision was replete with their electronic filth. It was just like
being at the movies.