A Different Kind of Love: Closer (2004)
Recently at breakfast, my wife complained about a sesame seed from her bagel that lodged under her retainer. We have been married for just over 9 months, and this last fall marked 4 years together. But her remark about the retainer caused me to pause, put down my bagel with lox, and stare at her silently.
‘What fucking retainer?’
Who is truth for? Is it a balm for the deceiver or the deceived? Truth, and the lies it springs up from are at the center of Closer, Mike Nichols' 2004 penultimate feature about four individuals living in London, intertwined in romance and deceit. Nichols and screenwriter Patrick Marber craft a thoroughly modern take on material that has the potential for melodrama, and ground it in the rhythms and shorthand of close relationships. It refuses easy answers about the characters, portraying people with muddied intentions and imperfect reasoning.
Closer is a cautionary tale on engagement of id. Through several chance encounters, the characters come together: Dan (Jude Law) meets Alice (Natalie Portman) as she looks the wrong way at incoming traffic. Anna (Julia Roberts) is assigned to take Dan’s photograph for his book by his publisher; at that session, Alice arrives and has a woman to woman conversation on Dan’s behavior. Dan’s infatuation with Anna and twisted sense of humor leads him to a hookup chat room (a messenger-like internet based version of Tinder/Grinder, for you youngsters) where he proto-catfishes dermatologist Larry (Clive Owen) to a chance meeting with Anna. The story is told over time jumps; sometimes a year has passed, sometimes an afternoon. Dan never seems to commit fully to Alice, and Larry never seems to find solace in his relationship with Anna. Plenty is known without ever being spoken about, and when the truth does come out, it’s explosive.
There’s a variety of factors that make Closer one of the best films about relationships. Nichols can mine theatrical material and make it cinematic; but he also creates an environment where actors can say a line like ‘He tastes like you but sweeter!’ and it doesn’t become a punchline but a cutting rebuke about it’s speaker. Marber, adapting his stage play, doesn’t waste a moment. He peppers the language of the film with the slang of a relationship, so that when Larry uses the Anna’s words to describe her and Dan’s relationship or Alice’s nicekname, ‘Buster’, they are dropped on Dan like a ton of brick.
The men of Closer are arguably at some of their career best performances. Clive Owen was on a hot streak, lasting from here to 2007’s Children of Men. Jude Law is peak smug prick; a trait that works as he’s aged into The Young Pope but could be off putting to industry expectations at that time. On the flip side, this is arguably top tier but not career best for Julia Roberts. She and Portman are in command in a way that juxtaposes how emotionally out of control their male counterparts aren’t. Julia Roberts wears the conflict of Anna’s attractions in her eyes and on her shoulders in natural, un-showy way.
But Natalie Portman commands the screen. She’s a believable noir moll; the knockout next door who subtly manipulates the plot more than the would be movers and shakers. A core question of who she is drives the story; from Alice’s and Dan’s chance meeting to Larry’s strip club interrogation, where Alice dances under the name of Jane. This potential duplicity is deeply treaded in the story; Alice’s language has ticks that are intercontinental, like she’s hiding something. Dan introduces Anna to Alice; he describes them as the same ilk. Woman, Alice assumes, not thinking of her status as an American. Her passport is hidden; their final destination a secret. And after the final decision is made by Alice to end her relationships, she returns to New York, prowling a sidewalk, and looks right against oncoming traffic when she should look left …
I was kissing my wife good night the other day. I rolled over, turned off the lights, and laid there for a moment. Then I said ‘A retainer. It’s like we’ve never really kissed this whole time.’
It’s an insufferable sweetness of relationships, this comfortable shorthand about who we are. And the moments that disrupt it are shocking, rather imbued with malice or ridiculous intent.