dir: Mike Nichols
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It’s not about the masterpiece Joy Division album that Courtney Love and probably some of you, your uncles or your mums lost their virginities to. It’s not about the Nine Inch Nails song that made the phrase ‘I want to fuck you like an animal’ part of popular parlance. But it is about fucking. Specifically, it’s about the way that the need for sex brings people together and destroys them. It’s about the way in which honesty causes more heartbreak than the cruellest lies. And it’s about what sad creatures we humans truly are.
As a four-hander, with four fairly well-known actors, the film continually betrays its stage origins as a play. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I don’t exactly kill my mother over the prospect of getting enough cash to buy tickets to get to the theatre on a Friday night, but I don’t necessarily dislike movies that come across as stagey. I love decent acting and good dialogue, so a movie which is all dialogue isn’t a problem for me. Those that hate talky gabfests now know they can avoid this film like the plague. And the rest of this review, presumably.
I didn’t necessarily like this film. This is a hard film to like, and that’s not because of the presence of Julia Roberts. It’s hard to like because it’s pretty depressing. Depressing isn’t bad when it’s Schindler’s List or Requiem for a Dream, but one doesn’t usually expect to feel like opening their wrist and neck veins when watching something that’s packaged as a cluey romantic melodrama. Then again plenty of people feel like opening a vein in lieu of watching Julia Roberts ever again.
In a sparsely-filled cinema, I could see several couples that had come along expecting something quite different from what they actually got. Two couples walked out. That’s not to imply that there was any Dario Argento-type action involving someone getting stabbed, eviscerated and strangled all in the same scene. I think they were bored, mostly. I didn’t find it boring per se, but by the same token I didn’t find it all riveting. The best bits are the nastiest, all the same, and any sweet bits are undercut by the knowledge that people are about to fuck things up in the worst way.
These kinds of films like to purport to being an honest look at male-female relationships, or any relationships for that matter, peeling back the layers of ego and self-interest to reveal naked, raw torment lurking under the skin of the most in control characters, but really, it’s a bit pretentious. Actually it’s very fucking pretentious sometimes. That doesn’t mean these films are without merit. The characters don’t have to be overly down-to-earth or mundane to be ‘real’. They seem real, and they speak and act realistically when in a similar situation to what you might recall or imagine yourself to be in; you start squirming because you know what they’re talking about. And I had several moments like that during this film. It probably says more about me than it does about the film, but at the very least I can say that some parts of the overall story resonated with me, which is fairly rare. Those of you that regularly inflict my reviews upon yourselves (you fucking masochists) know that most films have little if any impact upon me, whether I like them or not.
Then again there may be a few bits of the film that I missed. There was a floor show going on in the theatre whilst I was watching the flick, you see. Instead of pre-feature entertainment, I was lucky to get some during-screening joy from watching the antics of one of my fellow patrons.
Ten minutes after the flick started, an usher bearing a torch helped a guy on crutches to a seat, to the extreme right of the cinema. Clanking his metallic supports like he was Marley’s Ghost from Dickens’ Christmas Carol, he settled down to watch the film that he’d interrupted for the rest of us. Well, actually, he needed to take his jacket off. Then take his mobile out of his bag to check his messages. Then send a text message to his buddies, his mum or his proctologist.
Then he decided he didn’t like where he was sitting. So he had to get up, with difficulty. Then put his puffy jacket on. Then get his bag filled with the treasure from the Sierra Madre and put it over his shoulder. Then clink and clank into the centre aisle.
About half an hour passed, during which he kept checking messages continually, upon deciding that the movie of marital heartbreak and infidelity wasn’t really doing it for him. So he got up and made his metallic way down the stairs. He then remembered that he’d left his jacket, so he made his back up the stairs to get it. He put it on, then clumped down the stairs towards the exit.
As I was watching the screen and this guy with increasing incredulity, whilst I couldn’t predict what was going to happen next on the screen, I could predict what was next in the offing with Hopalong Cassidy. He then, at the base of the stairs remembered that he’d left his bag behind. So up he came again.
He left and didn’t come back until the last few minutes of the film, during which he tried to make a call on his mobile, until I threatened to break his other leg. He demurred, and all was well with the world after that.
You may think that I’m prone to exaggeration and hyperbole, lies, drunkenness and deceit, and you may well be right. But in truth it is with wonderment and a full compliment of misanthropic barbs awaiting a good launching that I tell you this actually happened.
So apart from getting a picture perfect example of how much people suck in the real world (and I don’t mean the way that the lords and ladies love so much, no, stop that, I don’t like it when you use your teeth, this isn’t what I paid you for etc), I was also subjected to it on the screen. And it clicked with me, and that’s not just because of Stumpy McGee and his Gammy Knee.
If in your life you’ve reached a certain age, and have had the fortune or misfortune to have had a bunch of relationships along the way: platonic, sexual, hetero, gay, vegetable, mineral, animal; you’ve probably accumulated as well a store of wonderful and less wonderful memories. Some of those will be because of actions that you took, times that you chose to say yes or no when you should or shouldn’t have, and some will be because of blessings and curses that others have laid upon you, with your consent or not. We, to quote the title of Spike Lee’s second best film, sometimes do the right thing, but as any viewer of the news or Jerry Springer knows, you don’t get on tv by doing the right thing by people. We remember the hurt they caused us or we caused them beyond any rational level. Sexual honesty and dishonesty can cause wounds deep enough to never heal for the rest of your unnatural life.
We call the source of much of this ‘temptation’ or fate, but much of the time the actions that we have taken, the hurt that we’ve brought to other people has a source closer to the uglier parts of ourselves. Selfishness and cowardice are responsible for more misery in relationships than having a large cock, sharp teeth or a high sex drive.
Need, desperate need. Vicious exposed male egos. Women too weak to reject the advances of another man, too cowardly to tell a lie or the right truth at the right time. This malaise of unhappiness, of the absence of genuine intimacy between people permeates the film as the story lacks any scruple in depicting the real world of human relationships as being utterly devoid of romanticism or untainted happiness.
The reason isn’t just the infidelity. It’s about what happens afterwards when the mind cannot get past the reality of something that occurred with someone, sexually speaking. Do we wonder how it is that to hear about something sexual that someone has done or has been done to them can change our opinion of that person irrevocably, instantaneously? Even if we loved them with all our hearts up until that very second when our brains understood the words, and that sick feeling opens up inside like a poisonous flower.
If any of that sounds vaguely familiar, then you know the kind of feeling that this movie with its story relating to the highly fucked up interactions between four people is trying to evoke in its audience.
The actors (Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen) all do very well with their roles. The characters aren’t entirely likeable, because they’re not written as types, they’re written as people with particular psychologies who actions and words seem to arise organically. Clive Owen in particular is a revelation in this film; quite frightening, I have to say. Seeing him exhibit an aspect of the raw male ego in its purest form is far more frightening than the kind of mock characters you see in horror films. His dialogue, his boorishness and ability to turn his character on its heel at a moment’s notice, are all solid. His character’s scene with Alice at the strip club is exemplary in a film that has many solid, queasy scenes. For a dermatologist, Dr Larry has the kind of bedside manner that makes Dr Kevorkian look kind and life-affirming in comparison
Julia Roberts, surprisingly enough, is decent in this film. I know, she is the spawn of some lower demonic beings, with teeth she stole from the corpse of Phar Lap, but she’s good here. Subdued, I think the word is. As Anna, she actually seems to be playing a character, as opposed to a slight variation on the Julia Roberts Experience that she usually exhibits in her monstrous movies.
Anna is an American photographer working in London, whom Dan (Jude Law) fixates upon. She’s not a particularly ‘bad’ person, she’s just weak. There is a certain weakness that some of us can relate to, the inability to stand up for yourself by giving in to the desires of other people because you don’t have the balls or the ovaries to hurt them by rejecting them. It’s not particularly deep, or rare, but you rarely see such personalities assayed on the screen, because let’s face it, ambiguity is not something audiences generally like on the big screen.
Dan is an obituary writer who’s particularly pathetic in his own especially unique way. After bumping into Alice (Natalie Portman), they start up a relationship. Emboldened by the adoration of a younger ‘experienced’ woman that helps him to jump start his writing career (by plagiarising her entire life), this gives him the courage he needs to start pursuing another woman that fascinates him, in the form of the woman photographing him for the cover of his book’s jacket.
Dan fixates on Anna, despite the fact that he has a partner, in fact starts his relationship with Alice whilst already in a relationship (with someone called Ruth that we never see). So naturally, a relationship with another woman makes perfect sense. The fact that he falls in ‘love’ so readily has, at least as the film implies, to do with abandonment by his mother, who was selfish enough to die when he was but a child (the cow). Being the most pathetic of the four, I also got the impression, since most of the film’s most pointed barbs are aimed at him, that he is something of a self-flagellation stand-in for the story’s original author, Patrick Marber. I don’t know that for a fact, that’s just the way it feels. At one particular point, in a film filled with the most colourful of language, a character screams the worst insult he can muster at Dan, and says, with a gargantuan amount of sarcasm and contempt ‘YOU WRITER!!!’. The way it’s said is just so vicious, and funny for me at least.
Because of something particularly childish and sleazy that Dan does online, Larry and Anna inadvertently meet up. The chessboard is set, let the battle begin.
Portman, who’s been nominated for an Academy award for this performance, is pretty good despite having some awful dialogue that no-one could carry off. She’s supposed to be something of an ingenue, but sometimes the dialogue just makes her character look like an idiot. Her scene with Larry in the strip club is phenomenal, all the same. And I’m not saying that for some of the physical contortions that she manages whilst wearing very little. It is a testament to the character that the conflict within that space is handled in such a way that with issues of power and gender conflict coming to the fore, she is the one with the power in that scene.
They all do a good job. Director Mike Nichols is no stranger to complicated dramatic material dealing with the ugliness of human relationships. With a long resume that includes the recent Angels In America, The Graduate, Catch 22, and one of my favourite relationship-savagery plays turned into films Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, he’s been making these kinds of films for decades. It’s a testament to his skill that he manages to keep most of the material interesting, going more for the pain rather than melodramatic bathos. There are very few tears, but there are many broken hearts, not least of which in the audience.
There is this really good drippy – hippy folk song that starts and ends the movie, by a guy called Damien Rice which wheedled its way into my subconscious since watching the movie. The song, the unfortunately named ‘Blower’s Daughter’ strikes the right note of bitter-sweet sadness, the sweetness aspect being entirely absent from the film itself.
At their most uncomfortable the various scenes still ring true, because so many arguments that you’ve had or can imagine sounded just like that: the lashing out, the reference to specific sexual stuff because you know it will cut the other to the quick, having sex for revenge, having sex out of pity, asking the questions that you know you don’t want to hear the answer to yet being compelled to do it anyway, it’s all there in its utterly messy glory.
This film is for people that know relationships suck, with a high boredom threshold. Which is not most of you romantic fools. I came out of this flick fairly depressed, but that doesn’t mean the film didn’t ‘work’ for me, because I think it did. That’s the problem, it worked too well.
6 times I’m glad my life is relatively uncomplicated these days out of 10
Larry: She doesn't want to be happy.
Dan: Everybody wants to be happy.
Larry: Depressives don't. They want to be unhappy to confirm they're depressed. If they were happy they couldn't be depressed any more. They'd have to go out into the world and live. Which can be depressing.