Sunday, December 19, 2004

This Will Hurt

The comparisons are inevitable, but when they happen they will be flawed. In 1966, director Mike Nichols plumbed the depths of sexual cruelty with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Nearly four decades later he is at it again with Closer, but the new film makes the first look like a nursery rhyme.

It can sometimes be comforting to observe that men and women were not meant to get along with each other, and there is no dearth of films in the kitty to lend credence to the opinion. Fairytale romances also abound, and in greater number, perhaps because they allow us to be transported away from reality, to a place where there is a happy-ever-after for all good hearts, and where we do not cut each other to pieces with our mouths.

But life is not like the movies, except in those rare instances where the movies are allowed to tell it to us straight. Closer is such a film, and it is an understatement to say it pulls no punches. It is an adaptation of Patrick Marber’s successful West End play, and Nichols’ hands are without a doubt the best that could be found to handle the transport. Marber’s characters make mincemeat of each other with dialogue that somehow seems natural, despite being anything but. It has often been compared to Mamet, and while on the surface its clipped nature might suggest this, there is a visceral underpinning to it that goes for the throat in a way that is unique to Marber. In the cinema, this kind of interplay is Nichols’ territory, and it is comforting to find that he is the one handling it here.

The film begins with a lingering sequence which, although interrupted by cutting, still manages to echo the ponderous long takes that open so many of Nichols' films. This time it is a slow-motion homage to love at first sight. Extrapolating from the opening scene of Marber’s play, which is set in a hospital emergency room, Nichols here shows us its precedent: in the morning sidewalk bustle of London, Dan (Jude Law) spots Alice (Natalie Portman), and is encouraged by her smile. The distraction is just enough to allow Alice to be hit by an oncoming taxi. “Hello stranger,” she says to Dan, who worriedly bends over her damaged body in the street. And on this portentous note, we are off to the races.

We will finish the film as we began it, with Dan and Alice, but first we will watch as their lives collide with two more strangers. Anna (Julia Roberts) is a photographer hired to shoot Dan’s photo for his upcoming book. Larry (Clive Owen) is an anonymous doctor conned by Dan in an online wankroom to hook up with Anna, who has rejected Dan’s adulterous advances. It is the first of many icy ploys biopsied by the film, inadvertently inflicted upon an innocent (Larry) by a spiteful stranger (Dan) with the intention of hurting someone else altogether (Anna). Actions against others come with consequences, and the immediate outcome of Dan’s jealous whimsy is nothing compared to the avalanche that will follow it.

Closer is populated with hateful people. What is important is that they are thus not so much as a result of the things they do to each other, but because the manner in which they do them will remind us of our own selves and lovers. We often hate most those things in others that remind us of our own deficiencies, and while we may like to think of ourselves as “good people,” it is only a liar or a rare gem indeed that can say they have not used language to strike out at a lover in jealous spite. If we are typical specimens, we will find that the film’s bitter taste comes not from what it shows us, but from the fact that it has shown it to us in a mirror.

Having said this, one of the smarter aspects of Marber’s script is its acknowledgment that most people are not in fact monsters, but are nonetheless capable on occasion of behaving monstrously toward one another. Closer distills the romantic relationships of its characters down to their cruelest moments, making huge elliptical jumps in order to whittle out only the most primal, brutal vignettes in these people’s lives. We are instinctively aware that these lovers have experienced long and satisfying periods of bliss with one another, but these days are of no interest to either Marber or Nichols. Muddling the good times with the bad would be strictly beside the point here.

The character flaw that Closer lingers over in its participants is a familiar one: they insist upon the truth in their relationships. It is a predictably disingenuous policy, however, as it is only ever employed to illuminate lies already committed. And while admitting indiscretions may seem to the idealist the honorable thing to do, someone who has done so might tell you differently. “Why did you tell me?” asks Larry of Anna when she says she’s been sleeping with Dan. “I couldn’t lie to you,” she replies, and when asked why says, “Because I love you.” As the film moves inexorably forward, this naïveté is exchanged for cold estimation, as admissions become opportunities not for penitence but for emotional laceration.

Insisting on the truth by asking for details when you discover you’ve been cheated on is also naïve. Although you may manage to extract it, it will usually be a truth you’re better off not knowing. Anna’s confession to Larry leads to one of the film’s most grueling confrontations. Questions like “Did you come?” and “What did it taste like?” will naturally lead to answers like “Yes” and “Sweeter than yours.” When pressed, Anna suggests that she prefers Dan’s gentle lovemaking to Larry’s roughness. He asks if she feels he makes love to her “like a whore.” “Sometimes,” she says, and the word is hardly out of her mouth before he parries with: “Now why would that be?” Once the entire, grueling truth has been extracted, Larry, who only moments earlier was as in love as it is possible to be, closes with: “Thank you for your honesty. Now fuck off and die, you fucked up slag.”

Truth, and its strategic exclusion, operates in the mouths of these people like powder in a musket barrel. As the film is winding down, Larry and Dan trade rough barbs in Larry’s office, but seem nonetheless to come to a sort of understanding. In a moment of refreshing kindness, Larry tells Dan, despite loathing him, that he never slept with Alice. We are almost as heartened by the fact as Dan is, until Larry stops him on his way out the door. Unable to help himself, Larry says to him: “I lied to you. I did fuck Alice. Sorry for telling you. I’m just not big enough to forgive you.”

Although the feelings may be familiar, no one speaks exactly like this in real life, and it's a good thing. The language these characters use is much like the timeline of the film: it has been distilled down to its rawest, most efficient elements. The French have a figure of speech, l’esprit d’escalier, which refers to those things you later wish you had thought to say at the time. It is a feeling people often have after an argument, but it is not an affliction shared by Marber’s characters. Their repartee is fast and furious, and no opportunity to inflict wounds is missed simply because of the speed of the battle. These people are never at a loss for words when it comes to verbal mutilation.

It is this seemingly spontaneous (but in fact absolutely deliberate) prose that will make Closer memorable long after the dreck of this year’s box office is washed from the streets. “Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off,” says Anna to a desperate Larry, refusing him the solace he seeks. “But it's better if you do." Later, when Dan speaks of the complexity of the human heart, Larry fires back: “Have you seen a heart? It looks like a fist covered in blood.”

As the film comes to a close, the abbatoir has been washed and sterilized, and we are brought back again to square one with one of the most perfect bookends in recent memory. Once again, Alice is strolling a sidewalk in slow-motion telephoto. This time, however, she is back in New York, and there is no Dan. Instead she is surrounded by hungry-eyed men who turn to leer at her as she passes, sizing her up like a veal cutlet. We see in her eyes that she is aware of the attention, and derives an icy joy from it. She has been returned by the events of her life to the position of sexual quarry, but the romance of the job has been replaced by cold experience. And thus it is that the carnivores go about their business.

Upon seeing the film recently, an acquaintance of mine told me she thought “it shows how men really think.” I was struck by the statement - struck that she hadn’t bothered to keep score, focusing exclusively on the damage done by Dan and Larry, and leaving the deception, cruelty, and poor choices of Alice and Anna behind. Her oversight was an almost primal display of sexual self-preservation, and reminded me again of the power of Marber’s characterizations and Nichols’ interpretation, how close to the nerve they cut with them. Their film, like her unknowing statement, suggests an enthusiastic answer to the question of whether men and women were meant for one another:

"Of course they are," it says. "They deserve each other."