“Have you ever seen a human heart? It’s like a fist wrapped in blood!”
Love can be a brutal weapon. A fist wrapped in blood. Never has that been more evident than in 2004’s Closer, directed by Mike Nichols of The Graduate fame, based on the play by Patrick Marber. It is a four person play of two men and two women, couples which will seduce, toy with, and betray each other and the only true heart will be the one who’s never told the truth about themselves.
We begin when a young American woman named Alice, played by Natalie Portman, is hit by a taxi in London; she looks left instead of right. An office worker named Dan- Jude Law- helps get her back on her feet, and when she opens her eyes she says, “Hello stranger,” and we note the instant chemistry. He takes her to the hospital; they hit it off. He writes obituaries for a newspaper, but wants to be a novelist. She’s an intriguing young beauty, disarming, he tells her; she becomes his muse, and a year later is publishing a book inspired by her life as a stripper. We learn this when he goes to photographer Anna (Julia Roberts) to get his mug shot for the dust jacket.
Alice is a girl, and Anna is a woman, confident, statuesque. Dan is immediately captured by her as she clicks away with her Leica. A fellow artist; an established one, as opposed to aspiring young Dan. He kisses her, but she rebuffs him, once she knows he’s in a relationship. He persists, interrupted when Alice comes upstairs to use “the loo”- her affectation of Britishisms is an amusing conceit- and Anna asks to take her picture alone, recognizing her natural beauty. She’s heard their flirtations, and Anna takes a photo of her sadness that eventually ends up at her photo exhibition later. Alice decides not to tell Dan what she overheard, but he never forgets Anna.
If you have any doubts as to Ms. Portman’s acting abilities, I suggest you see this film. She exudes a wisdom belying her age, and we know Alice knows more than her years imply, whether through instinct or experience. Jude Law’s Dan is a little less mysterious; he’s the artist who idealizes love, and would rather be the one doing the desiring in a relationship. He’s also a bit of a prankster. One night he’s in an internet chat room (looks like AOL Instant Messenger) pretending to be a woman, teasing a doctor who’s up late on his shift, named Larry (Clive Owen). They have a hilarious cybersex exchange, and Dan plays a cruel trick that backfires on him: he masquerades as Anna, and tells him to meet him at the London Aquarium.
Larry is the gruff opposite of neat, pretty Dan; Clive Owen wears a perpetual five o’clock shadow, paired with his bushy eyebrows, knobby knuckles and slightly hunched posture make him seem like he crawled out of a Cro-Magnon cave and into a doctor’s white coat. He’s a man ruled by animal appetites, but he’s sharp enough to know how to turn a prank into Cupid’s arrow. His befuddlement and honest apologies after his vulgar come-ons to Anna endear him to her, and they become a couple. We meet them again at Anna’s exhibition, where a huge photo of Alice’s crying face fills a wall. While Dan and Anna meet to discuss their work, Larry recognizes Alice from her photo and asks her what she thinks.
“It’s a lie. It’s a bunch of sad strangers photographed beautifully, and… all the glittering assholes who appreciate art say it’s beautiful ’cause that’s what they wanna see. But the people in the photos are sad, and alone… But the pictures make the world seem beautiful, so… the exhibition is reassuring which makes it a lie, and everyone loves a big fat lie.”
Oddly enough, you’d think Larry and Alice would hit it off immediately for they’re both cynics. At one point he calls himself “a clinical observer of the human carnival,” and he’s the source of the opening quote about the human heart. He holds no illusions, but is not made of stone. “You don’t know the first thing about love, because you don’t understand compromise.” And the compromise he’ll make to get what he wants, and to get revenge, is the bloody heart of this story. For while he and Alice are chatting, Dan and Anna are as well.
Once Anna and Dan are together, Alice and Larry are torn apart. Alice disappears into her own past, but Larry refuses to give up on Anna. When she asks him for a divorce, as an observer of the “human carnival,” he accuses her of doing this because she doesn’t think she deserves to be happy. I’m not a big fan of Julia Roberts, but here she is quite brilliant; Anna is a carefully built façade of strength hiding internalized self-loathing from abuse in previous relationships. “Did you get dressed because you thought I was going to hit you?” “I’ve been hit before.” “Not by me!” Patrick Marber’s screenplay based on his own play has such depths written between the lines. She wears weakness as a shield, using her past to deflect judgment for her actions. And Larry admits an infidelity with a prostitute just before her own announcement, because he senses it coming. Does he do it to get the first punch in, or because he knows she’s leaving him for another man, and wants to dwarf his own indiscretion alongside hers?
Like the more recent Doubt, Closer is crafted to initiate discussion. Is Larry’s infidelity somehow less criminal because he doesn’t cheat with his heart? It’s the stereotypical male excuse. Larry is a self-described “caveman,” and we notice that his weakness is sexual, while Dan “falls in love” when he cheats. After the break-ups, Larry finds Alice working in a strip club, as he tries to clobber the pain away with sex. Wearing a pink wig, little else, and using the name Janie Jones from the Clash song, he tries to reconnect with her. She’s steeled herself against her loss better than he has, despite her breakdown to Dan. The movie is perhaps most famous for this scene, not only for Ms. Portman’s state of undress, but for the brutally frank dialogue. She prowls around him in the private room like a pink tigress, as he stuffs pound notes into her garter, not asking her to reveal her body, but “something true.” Her response:
“Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off—but it’s better if you do.”
It’s a line from film noir, and the irony is that she’s most truthful here with Larry than with anyone else. He begs her to sleep with him, feigning pain and playing into her desire to be desired; but we’ll learn, he is also marking his territory, and setting up his cruel revenge on Dan “for deceiving me so exquisitely.” Because Anna needs to see him, to finalize their divorce. And as an astute observer of the human carnival, Larry knows how to get her back. He plays to her pity, and to his own caveman image: “You’d be my whore. And in return I will pay you with your liberty.” Leaving his mark on her, knowing that she’ll tell Dan, who won’t be able to accept it. In a line used in the trailer but not the film, he says, “You women don’t understand the territory, because you are the territory.”
Clive Owen’s portrayal of Larry is perfect, and he resembles Paul Newman in the role. A bit of Hud, surely. In the play, he had the role of the younger man Dan, versus Ciarán Hinds as the older, wiser man. Here he claims to understand love because he accepts compromise, but his idea of love is proprietary. Does he want Anna back because he loves her, because he knows he can hold her together when she’s weak, or because she was taken from him? Dan says, “You love her like a dog loves its owner,” but perhaps he loves her like a dog loves a bone. And while Larry says he’s forgiven her, and that “without forgiveness we’re savages,” we know what he’s done to Dan, and get the feeling Anna will be paying for her infidelities for the rest of her life. I’d always sided with Larry in early viewings, but the better I get to know him, the more I see him as a darker shade of gray than I did originally. But he does appeal to even young Dan, who apes some of his words when he goes back to Alice.
In the end, Dan is left with nothing except the revelation of his lover’s secret, and Alice is again crossing the street to Damien Rice’s “The Blower’s Daughter,” which tells of infatuation and loathing, only hinting at what went goes on in between; the film is similar, skipping a year between scenes, giving us only the crucial moments that send these relationships spinning off on a new axis. The moments they meet, the moments that set them into crumbling. In the background is always music from Mozart’s opera Così fan tutte, which also dealt with couples swapping partners. Here it sets a bittersweet mood, as Nichols works angles and close-ups, and his D.P. Stephen Goldblatt- more famous for action films, but also for the inventive Joe vs. the Volcano– maps the geography of the four human faces with incredible detail. Patrick Marber would also go on to adapt the excellent Notes on a Scandal, and director Mike Nichols easily makes his best movie since Mrs. Robinson flashed some thigh. Clive Owen and Natalie Portman would be nominated for Oscars, and win Golden Globes. It would be shoved aside by Million Dollar Baby of all things, but I think in the years to come, this will be better remembered.
Oh, and if you’re interested in lurid screencaps of Natalie in this movie, you’ll have to go to her Hump Day page.