When he sat down to write, at the ripe old age of eighty, a book on love and eroticism called The Double Flame, the great Mexican poet Octavio Paz waxed lyrical: "In love, predestination and choice, objective and subjective, fate and freedom intersect. The realm of love is a space magnetised by encounter."
Director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, 1967), at the age of seventy-three, is also drawn by that "space magnetised by encounter". In Closer, adapted by Patrick Marber from his 1997 play, everything begins from the charged meeting of strangers, whether on the street, over the Internet, or in a photographer's studio. But in this story the intersection of fate and freedom is more akin to an ugly, brutal accident.
The first words addressed by alluring young Alice (Natalie Portman) to the suave Dan (Jude Law) are "Hello, stranger" – words we will hear more than once, from various characters's mouths, in the course of the story. But, in between the mutual gaze of desire in a London street and this initial conversation, a cab has hit Alice. The encounters in this film are always ghosted by something threatening, something just off-screen, some secret locked away in one of the lovers' heads.
Marber's script systematically jolts us from one key moment in a relationship to another, sometimes several years ahead. When the photographer Anna (Julia Roberts) shuns the advances of Dan, he perversely sets her up to meet Larry (Clive Owen) – whom he has lasciviously and duplicitously romanced in cyberspace under a false identity. Such cruel games become par for the course as the four characters enter into various, permutating emotional and sexual arrangements.
Nichols has visited this dark terrain before, as has his one-time collaborator Elaine May in the withering black comedy The Heartbreak Kid (1972). Like in his Carnal Knowledge (1971), Nichols films these games-people-play – skin games, as Raymond Durgnat once named this genre – in a stark, unadorned, often riveting way. The brand of pessimism peddled by Closer resembles the jaded, binary world-view of director and playwright Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, 1997): men are either macho animals (Larry) or sly seducers (Dan), while women tend to suffer as slaves to love.
Like the earlier hit Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Closer signals American cinema's somewhat faddish return to the legacy of the art house revolution of the 1960s. With its characters arranged like figures on a chess board, its mild fiddling with narrative chronology, and its eschewal of a conventional music score, Closer at moments evokes the classic work of Alain Resnais, among others.
But, viewed in this way, Closer never quite goes far enough. Many more moves between these characters were possible – such as the gay theme suggested and then abandoned – and an even less reassuring portrait of people as inhuman, heartless manipulators could have been explored.
However, when it comes to the crunch, Nichols always opts for an old-fashioned psychological realism. He cannot bear to view his characters solely as types or figures; he is too enamoured of the superb work of his actors to ever give up those moments of emotional truth when the words dry up and the tears flow.
Such a betrayal of the material is disappointing artistically, but oddly uplifting emotionally – as if Nichols is unwilling to entirely forfeit the hope of a little, residual magic in love's encounters.
MORE Nichols: Regarding Henry
© Adrian Martin January 2005