Let’s Talk About… ‘Closer’ (2004)

Directed by Mike Nichols

Starring: Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Clive Owen

 

There are times when I think of a film that I have not seen in a while and cannot get it out of my mind, even after watching various clips over and over. Oddly enough, these are mostly films that I did not care for when I initially saw them. I suppose that time makes it so that I forget exactly why they did not intrigue me at the same time as it sparks my curiosity about how my perspective on the stories has changed over the years. As I get older, I realise that I was not ready to understand some of the films that I saw in my younger years. I spent a great deal of time in front of the television from the time I was an early adolescent and films proved to offer me both companionship and a window to the world. The memories I have of those times is often positive because I love films but there is a part of me that regrets the unfiltered access that I had to HBO and other outlets. Some people, children and young adults alike, should not be exposed to certain cinematic works until they have reached a certain maturity, which is generally measured through the experience of ageing. My argument is not necessarily geared towards censorship but more towards the appreciation of the expression of art that is conveyed in certain films. I bring this up because Closer is for a mature crowd. As Clive Owen said after winning a Golden Globe for his performance, “This is a film for adults”. When I heard him I say that, I realised that I had really not taken that fact into consideration when watching the film. Yes, I was technically an adult and had some grown-up experience but not really to the heights of the characters in the film. Ideally, I would recommend this film for those who are at least in their early 30s.

I first saw Closer a short while after its release on DVD. From memory, I rented it from one of those now-extinct European movie rental distributers that functioned almost like a vending machine. I was in my mid-20s and had already been married for several years. There is no particular reason why I was attracted to seeing it aside from hearing about the critical acclaim it had received. I had no expectations. Well, after watching it I can honestly say that I detested most everything about the film, notably the story and the cast. I was astounded that so many good things had been said about a film that focuses on extremely flawed characters with questionable morals and no happy ending in sight. What imbecile gave this project the green light? Well, a couple of weeks ago, I found myself thinking of Closer and did the usual ritual of watching several scenes from the film. While some of them were unremarkable, others were magnificent and captivating. I decided to purchase it on a whim and here I am talking about it now. So, how did impression from the film evolve from having seen it roughly 13 years beforehand? The upside is that I have a much higher appreciation for it overall. The downside is that I am left feeling unsatisfied – almost frustrated – with now having more unanswered questions about the characters than I ever anticipated.

 

Alice and Dan

Mike Nichols seems to love directing movies that focus on complex people who live seemingly deranged existences. I recently had the extreme displeasure of covering his film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the AFI 100 feature. That particular film featured vile, despicable characters with nothing endearing whatsoever about them. And though I found his film The Graduate somewhat interesting, some of the characters in that film share the same appalling features. Coming face-to-face with these flawed personas made me reflect on my cinematic tastes and I will be honest in saying that I slightly misjudged myself because I, too, have found value in characters that were far from being pure. I grilled Nichols to no end partly due to his films not being my style. I did not like the kind of crazy and immorality that he brought to life. Admittedly, I was wrong to generalise and am now content to have this opportunity to mend some of the gap that lies between my appreciation of Nichols and his work. So, without further ado, let us do what you (hopefully) came here for and talk about Closer.

Dan and Anna

Closer is a story that revolves around the lives of four individuals: Anna (Roberts), Dan (Law), “Alice” (Portman) and Larry (Owen).

Anna is an American who is recently divorced from a British man and has chosen to remain in London. She makes her living as a photographer who takes her inspiration from complete strangers, basically anyone she encounters whom she finds interesting or wants to use as a subject. Beautiful and refined, she shows signs of emotional fragility and reveals that she experienced domestic abuse in the past.

Dan is a British writer who works for an obituary writer for a newspaper but aspires for a fancier job title. At the start of the film, he is in a relationship with an unseen woman called Ruth but he soon enters into a union with Alice, about whom he writes a novel. He seems very sure of himself and does not like when things do not go his way.

Alice is an American who has a relatively carefree outlook on life and who has an adventurous spirit. She reveals few elaborate details of her life but seems to have been marked by her experiences despite her young age. Though she is very upfront about her feelings and exhibits self-assurance, she is vulnerable and remains elusive with some people, giving answers as if she were testing them to solve a riddle. Initially a waitress, she eventually becomes a stripper.

Larry is a British Dermatologist who is subdued by the monotony of his work. He is single but lonely and highly sexually charged, sometimes becoming ‘caveman-like’ in his behaviour when he is after something though has been known to display a more gentle side. His true love is Anna, whom he meets via a bizarre ploy by Dan, first dating and then getting married.

Larry

Alice had just arrived in London when she is hit by a car and sent to the hospital for her mild injuries. She is accompanied by Dan, with whom she locked eyes while walking down the street, and they get to know each other. Fast forward a year and they are celebrating their first anniversary. Dan has written a book largely based on Alice’s life and is being photographed by Anna for its upcoming publishing. He is immediately attracted to Anna and propositions her for a sexual relationship, even though he is living with Alice. Anna turns him down, much to Dan’s annoyance, and he retaliates a year later by posing as her on an online chat called London Sex Anon. There, Dan as Anna meets Larry, with whom he has a highly pornographic conversation. Larry is told to meet Anna in real life at the London Aquarium where she often goes to relax. Thinking that he will go to a hotel for sex, Larry goes to the Aquarium and indeed, the real Anna is there. After some confusion, Anna understands the machination Dan has created and reveals the truth to an embarrassed Larry. Fast forward four months later to find Anna and Larry a couple, with her opening an exhibit to display her work. Dan and Alice are there together; Dan to talk to Anna, who he has been stalking for the past 16 months, and Alice to see the photo that Anna took of her. Alice meets Larry while looking at her photo, also talking about Dan, who later convinces Anna to start sleeping with him. Anna and Dan carry on their affair for a year, even after Anna and Larry get married a few months after the exhibit. They both decide to reveal the truth to their respective partners so that they can finally be together.

The result is devastating for Alice, who disappears until Larry discovers her whereabouts when visiting a strip club. Larry, who is emotionally tormented by the breakup, tries talking with Alice but he does not get many straight answers. Alice only answers to the name “Jane” and refuses to acknowledge that she is the same girl that Larry had met a year earlier at the exhibit. In the meantime, Dan and Anna are a couple and waiting for her divorce papers to go through. Anna meets Larry at a restaurant so that he can sign the papers but he refuses to do so unless she sleeps with him one last time. Though she tries to keep the truth from Dan, Anna finally confesses that she slept with Larry and he violently rejects her. Anna goes back to Larry. Dan goes to see Larry, who advises him to find Alice, who still loves him very much. Before Dan leaves, Larry reveals that he and Alice slept together.

How does Dan handle the fact that Anna does not want him anymore and that Alice slept with Larry? Do Anna and Larry stay together? What becomes of Alice and Dan? I would tell you more but I do not like spoiling!

 

If the plot of the film seems a bit complicated then you are on the right track. Reading the synopsis alone for Closer will probably make you more confused than anything else. Nichols has made it so that the film plays out in real-time but with rapid transitions to the future and with sporadic flashbacks. You do not realise that the film has advanced in time until one of the characters mentions it or relates it to an event, like an anniversary. The way that Nichols chose to transition makes the feeling of the story all the more intimate because there are very few wasted shots or pointless dialogue. In fact, you sometimes forget that the film is set in London because exterior shots are limited in favour of interior ones, especially the characters’ residences. This approach actually works towards redeeming the characters because you are more emotionally attached to them and their personal environments. There are times when you feel as if you are an active observer of the actual goings-on rather than a viewer sitting on a couch in their living room.  It also helps that Nichols has many of the scenes playing out for an extended period of time just as if it were a stage production. I suppose it is beneficial that this film was adapted from a stage play but Nichols could have added more modern photography. Instead, he remains loyal to older filming techniques that work well for this kind of story.

Other than the four principal actors, there are only two other people credited with speaking lines in the film. As an actor, having ¼ of the film solely remaining on your shoulders is quite an undertaking. The ensemble was well chosen but it is clear that Portman and Owen stand well above Roberts and Law. I find that Roberts plays the role a little too blandly and I am thoroughly unconvinced that she would the object of such desire from Dan. Law was at the near height of his career in this film but I must admit that I only ever found him great in the film Gattaca. He was an unknown at that time and was perfectly fresh and original. After that, he became a Hollywood meathead. He portrays Dan in a more pathetic fashion than required to make it believable that Alice would be crazy over him and that Anna would eventually agree to be his mistress. Portman starts out a tad clichéd with a dyed red pixie cut that is more reminiscent of Run Lola Run than being a proper look for her character. She shows great acting range in this film added to the fact that she has never looked better physically. It is impossible not to be in awe of her appearance when she is stripping for Larry. Normally, I would have a hard time thinking that Portman would be up for remaining so scantily-clad on-camera but, then again, I think her admiration of Nichols prompted her to take a chance.

There are these three players and then there is Clive Owen, who is in a class all by himself. He completely embodies the character of Larry with intensity and no reservation. When you look at the fine details of his character, you should be somewhat turned off but Owen is so compelling – not to mention sexy as hell – that you cannot help but to be drawn into him, even rooting for him to prevail over Dan. Interestingly enough, Owen played the character of Dan in the Royal National Theatre production of the stage play, which I find very hard to imagine after watching him in this film. I suppose that is an additional reason why I find Law to be an awkward choice for the role. Owen won a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe alongside Natalie Portman who won for Best Supporting Actress. They were both nominated for Academy Awards but were both overlooked. After seeing Owen’s performance, it is yet another instance when you feel that the Academy was completely wrong. Could he have not shared the award with Morgan Freeman?

 

I still have my lingering questions about the story but I think they are best explored down below in the comments section if, by any chance, anyone else has seen the movie. It really is too bad that IMDb discontinued their discussion boards because I likely could have some thoughtful responses in regards to the questions I have. Alas, I shall remain somewhat stranded in my curiosity. 🙂

Julia Roberts on-set with director Mike Nichols