Retrospective: Closer (2004)

Anna: Why are you dressed?

Larry: Because I think you may be about to leave me and I didn’t want to be wearing a dressing gown.

Closer is another one of those movies that I would put in the box of being interesting, but certainly not a good movie. It seems rather apt to look back upon it as the director Mike Nichols died quite recently and this is one of his lesser known films. It is based on an opera Così fan tutte, but unusually it is actually darker than the source material.

Four lonely people meet by coincidence. The first two characters are twenty-four-year-old Alice Ayres (Natalie Portman) who is a stripper and Dan Woolf (Jude Law), a crap writer (his own words). She gets knocked down, he helps her, they become friends and start sleeping with each other and they are happy. It then jumps two years later when he is now successful and has written a book about the girlfriend’s experience but he’s bored so starts flirting and trying to have an affair with Anna Cameron (Julia Roberts). This is unsuccessful when Alice reappears and Anna tells Alice what happened, which then finally ties in with Larry Gray (Clive Owen) who Dan has had a cybersex encounter with while pretending to be Anna and all the characters become entangled. Then it’s partner swapping time. I feel the exhausted just writing the plot synopsis but it is necessary to explain how these strangers become so intimately bound with each other.

The way it works is part coincidence and part planning. The fact that the mechanics of the affairs are achieved with very little histrionics is what I find interesting compared with other movies dealing with similar subject matter. The mechanics of the event are portrayed as straightforward. With most cases of infidelity on screen there is often a lot of reasoning which is absent here and that is rather refreshing as there haven’t been a huge amount of films of television shows which don’t spend a lot of time justifying or judging the actions. The movie is built around the bread and butter of the drama which is infidelity, love, hate and relationships. Of course these themes have been seen before but Closer does more than that. All the characters are rather unlikeable but they show huge variation in their charactesr when they are with different partners and their desires change for an extended period yet they remain fundamentally unlikeable, with perhaps the exception of Larry who has moments of levity. This is a movie which shows LOVE as SERIOUS and the fact that it shows only the relationships and nothing more for these characters means it is very hard to humanise them. Likewise, their only engagement is with each other, showing the film’s theatrical roots. The lack of humour is a major weakness and you do start to clock watch as the relationship strife of these pretty and successful people is not always completely engaging. The movie tries to be quite clever by jumping forward with each couple at their points of tension and love but it doesn’t do it well enough. When you see one fight about an affair then an identical one with a different character fifteen minutes later then it gets boring, the honourable exception to this would be Larry whose sarcastic humour was just enough to keep me watching.

It is a pretty film. There are some nice shots, especially the interior shots. It comes over more as style over substance and surprisingly on occasions it looks rather cheap, such as some of the London outdoor scenes. It’s also surprisingly coy for a movie about affairs as as there is no sex nor nudity, it’s much more implied than shown which seems rather odd for a movie solely about affairs.

When looking at Mike Nichols and his films, the themes of betrayal and sex are common. From both this and The Graduate I came away feeling that other films do it better and make affaris more human. The better example of this kind of movie is the TV series The Affair, or Masters of Sex as both add human touches to the effects of infidelity whilst showing the effect on those left behind, allowing the characters the be more than just about their relationships. The Affair is a particular interesting comparison due to its split perspective and the normality of the characters. Overall, this a brave but flawed film and the flaws are too large to overlook.

Review by Harry Riedl


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