Each of the four characters in Closer, Mike Nichols’s adaptation of Patrick Marber’s play, inhabits a world of surfaces. Larry (Clive Owen) is a dermatologist, who by the nature of his specialization avoids the inner workings of his patients, and can even rearrange appearances to suit his or their whims. Anna (Julia Roberts) does portrait photography. She captures faces on film and hangs them up on gallery walls for strangers to stare at, while the inner lives of the models become irrelevant to their pleasure. Dan (Jude Law) hopes to be a novelist one day, but in the meantime he writes obituaries. As he describes the process, he takes snippets of lives from the Internet and weaves them together with a few coded comments to create the impression of a whole life reconstructed in a few paragraphs. Alice (Natalie Portman) gradually reveals that she was last employed in a strip club, where the “no-touch” policy restricts intimacy to a purely visual dimension. These surfaces facilitate superficial contact, but they also provide barriers to keep the characters at a distance. Despite their frantic search for love, they cannot satisfy their yearning to grow closer to one another.
“Closer” keeps to the postmodern tradition by dispensing with chronological narrative. A cut from one scene to the next might take the action forward several years, or backward through memories that may or may not be accurate. Through clues embedded in the dialogue, the mysterious incoherence of the action gradually becomes clear. Despite its complex structure, the plot development rewards the patient and the attentive. As a direct descendant of the stage, this is a film of words, endless streams of words. It explores the world of contemporary sexual mores through uninhibited characters talking about intimacy in terms that become in turn clinical, crude, tender and extremely funny. Ironically, given the theme of the play, the film itself uses words to stay on the surfaces of its characters. To his credit, Mike Nichols and his splendid ensemble of actors use words to explore adult themes without a hint of adolescent salaciousness, but at the price of keeping his people coldly distant. The film’s four-subject portfolio of characters matches one of Anna’s gallery shows. The faces provoke passing interest, but at the end, does anyone really care about the people behind the surfaces?
At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, the characters are too young, too self-absorbed to carry the weight that Patrick Marber, who just turned 40 last September, imposes on them. Even though Larry and Anna first appear as established professionals, they haven’t yet taken control of their lives, which is not unusual for most of us, but they seem to have no clue that their impulsive behavior reveals a stunning immaturity, bordering on solipsism. Dan and Alice are younger and searching for a direction in their lives, but they have not yet gathered the experience to envision consequences for their actions and accept the sad fact that the universe includes others. Like spoiled children, none of the four has yet realized that any has responsibility for anyone other than themselves.
A point of contrast underlines my point. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Mike Nichols’s 1964 adaptation of Edward Albee’s play, featured a similar two-couple body count after a nightlong, drunken battle of the sexes. (Patrick Marber was born in 1964.) George and Martha (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) were older and deeper. As war-hardened veterans, they knew how to get underneath each other’s skin to inflict the maximum pain, and inflict pain they did, with premeditated delight.
In “Closer,” Larry and Anna, Dan and Alice, seem to stumble into their nastiness, and once they sink into it, they are either unaware of the pain they bring into the lives of others, or if they are, they simply don’t care. They embody the sentiment of the age: “Whatever.” They are creatures of the Me Generation, whose attitudes on relationships were formed in the post-pill era. Gratification is about me, and no one else really counts.
Ever alert to opportunities and ready for adventure without consequences, they fall in and out of each other’s lives. Fresh from a failed relationship in New York, Alice steps off a London curb looking left in the American way, and is struck by a cab coming from the right in the British way. Dan stops to help, and the action shoots forward four years. They have been living together, and Dan has written a novel based on her experiences as a stripper. The publisher sends him to Anna for the dust jacket portrait, and after a testy exchange about stealing peoples’ lives for profit, the roles of novelist and portraitist alike, they fall into each other’s arms. Anna suggests changing the title of the novel to “The Aquarium,” a place where voyeurs gawk at strange creatures swimming in an icy medium on the other side of a thick glass barrier. It’s her favorite pastime, she admits.
Dan uses this information to orchestrate a nasty practical joke. Like a smirking frat boy, he engages Larry in a pornographic chat room, where he pretends to be an uninhibited woman eager for a torrid but meaningless escapade. Despite his medical degree, Larry acts like a hyperventilating 12-year-old, shutting the blinds of his office in the hospital and brushing off a colleague’s phone call so that he can return to the forbidden pleasures of his electronic tryst. Dan gives his name as “Anna” and arranges a face-to-face meeting at the Aquarium at a time when Anna, the photographer, will be present. Setting Anna up with a creepy Internet date is his revenge for her apparent coldness toward him. Of course, the plan backfires when Anna and Larry enter into their own relationship. While sex itself serves little purpose beyond personal gratification, betrayals and deceit provide exquisite instruments for inflicting pain on another even if suffering is merely an unintended consequence of yielding to an infatuation.
As a former dancer in a strip club and self-identified free spirit, like a holdover from the Woodstock generation of the 1960’s, Alice should be the most sophisticated, but she is also the youngest and most vulnerable. She manufactures her own surfaces of insouciance to mask her childlike needs. When Dan’s book flops and he leaves her, Alice takes up her former profession in London. Despite his blossoming medical practice and his marriage, Larry consorts with a prostitute in New York and visits an adult club, where he finds Alice, wearing her revealing costume, heavy make-up and a silver pageboy wig. The prospect of satisfying his uncontrolled lust with Alice brings the added benefit of hurting Dan, who he believes is having an adulterous affair with his wife. As a creature of surfaces, she skillfully draws protective boundaries around herself even as she entices her customers. She allows him to look but not to touch, like the surveillance cameras installed in each hospitality room to protect the hostesses from violence and the owners from criminal charges for engaging in prostitution. She complies with his crude voyeuristic requests, but in his desperation, he discovers that it is she who has humiliated and degraded him in his pathetic need.
Most of the action takes place in confined areas, like tastefully appointed apartments, galleries and studios, that add to the sense of narcissistic confinement that imprisons the characters. On one occasion, on the day of their first meeting, Dan takes Alice for a brief tour of London. They enter a memorial garden whose walls are lined with plaques commemorating heroes who gave their lives to rescue others. Years later Dan revisits the site and discovers that Alice had taken her assumed name from one of the inscriptions. After all their misadventures together, he never even knew her real name. Even more, in his world, those who give their lives for others are dead people, mere names carved into a damp stone wall. Such sacrifice is incomprehensible. In his world, the living live for themselves.
Does this trail of surfaces erected and surfaces dismantled lead to a moral? Yes, in a roundabout way. The four characters are young, successful, witty and attractive. They have everything a young professional might covet, but at the end their emptiness echoes under the facades they have allowed to substitute for their personalities. As their words pour forth, no one attracts a shred of sympathy. They are self-absorbed shells who can’t get closer to anyone or anything, and that is the portrait of contemporary life that Marber, Nichols and these extraordinary actors illuminate in all its ugliness.
Sartre’s message in “No Exit” needs revision for this generation. Hell is not other people. Hell is the self.