Monday, May 30, 2011

Critiquing the Modern Relationship in 'Closer'

American director Mike Nichols' screen adaptation of Patrick Marber's award-winning stage play Closer received much popular and critical acclaim following its release in 2004. Marber took the project of writing the screenplay, and attracted the stars Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, Jude Law and Clive Owen to the central roles of Alice, Anna, Dan and Larry. The film, like the play on which it is based, has been seen by some as modern and tragic version of Mozart's opera Cosi Van Tutte with references made in both the plot and the soundtrack. One of the central themes in Closer is the relationship between the ethical and the aesthetic spheres, of representation and reality. Nichols' text focuses upon the impossibility of intimacy between men and women due to selfishness, male jealousy, the uncontrollable nature of sexual lust, and the universal subscription of the modern cult of 'self-fulfilment'.

Nichols' past experience as both a film and theatre director made him an interesting selection to direct the screen adaptation, utilising his skills of controlling stage actors to transform the dialogic exchanges between these Hollywood stars previously written for the stage into known landmarks of London. Patrick Hayes argues: "Closer should not be seen as a film, but a play that has been filmed. Although there have been challenges to the plot, the dialogue is written for the stage, not for the cinema." This effect is minimalised somewhat by the use of the natural London locations, but predominantly the film relies on the 'stagey' locations to house the drama. We can also take into account the audience's expectations of the actors' personalities and previous roles in playing a part of our perception of their characters, questioning whether these actors would have been as effective on stage. It is interesting to note that Clive Owen, who plays Larry in the film, had previously played the role of Dan in the stage play, the character offered to Jude Law.

A feature of much importance in the film is the occupations of the four central characters, revealing key traits to their identity and personality and a motivating factor behind their actions throughout the narrative. This understanding also allows us a way to analyse these characters in relation to ourselves and to question how we are manipulated to align with one over another. They are all concerned with the outside appearances of themselves, but predominantly those of strangers. Alice (Natalie Portman) is a stripper who provides a pleasurable service to men but at the same time wants no human contact. Larry (Clive Owen) is a dermatologist and treats skin diseases but wants to feel the touch of someone special. Dan (Jude Law) is an obituary writer who constructs truths about people posthumously. Anna (Julia Roberts) is a photographer expressing people's (strangers) appearances and emotions and presenting them in public. Anna uses Dan as a subject of her work, and he agrees willingly, but she also uses Alice, whose emotional capture becomes a centrepiece of the exhibition.

It is also interesting to examine Closer from a perspective towards the sexual objectifications of women, as previously discussed by Laura Mulvey in her article 'Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema' (published in 1975). Mulvey characterises the cinematic 'gaze' as completely patriarchal: male characters in film modelled as an ideals of self-realisation (they are everything the male viewer wishes to be - while women are modelled as an ideal of visual pleasure-objects). Mulvey writes: "In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness."

Hitchcock demonstrates some of the finest examples of this idea in his films Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958). Drawing from this, it can be argued that mainstream Hollywood cinema embodies a male consciousness, with the camera adopting the role of the man that gazes upon the external female objects within the frame. In this sense do the male figures already has a dominant role in the film, with the women immediately adopting a passive role? Both male protagonists in Closer are driven to distraction and irrational behaviour by their desire for Anna. Curiously, Anna is less overtly attractive than Alice, with Nichols deliberately undermining Roberts' beauty while Portman is continually shot in luminous close-up. But it is Anna who is seen photographing Alice, capturing her beauty and placing it in her gallery for the pleasurable viewing of the public, slightly subverting Mulvey's idea. Marber's polarised female protagonists espouse different versions of the modern cult of 'independence' but both end up damaged by their efforts to find intimacy and true love. Marber's screenplay suggests that Anna is forced to choose between the sensitive and gutless Dan or the oafish but completely honest Larry.

Closer also contains a seemingly confusing divide between love and 'the truth'. Love is seen as an illusion that must be maintained and the desire for honesty between lovers is looked upon as doomed to failure. Once can desire the truth, or desire your lover, but not both, leading to this desire shattering their illusion of love. To further address the themes of truth versus denial, we must first examine the cause of the failed relationships so painfully exhibited in the film. Commonly it is due to a failure to successfully communicate with the partner, the strongest obstacle being this desire to 'tell the truth'. But why do these characters need the truth? Alice and Larry seem to require all the facts about their partner's affairs but no one but Larry in the film immediately and accurately recounts facts to the other person. Relationships are supposedly built on honesty, getting 'closer' beyond the superficial to the intimate. Larry immediately confesses to Anna upon his return from New York that he had slept with a prostitute; forced to tell her the truth because he loved her and couldn't lie to her. He recognised from Anna's demeanour that something was wrong and that she was thinking of leaving him, but he had to persist with questions before she revealed everything. Anna had slept with Dan that very evening, and Larry sought every detail of their sex life to create an emotional response from Anna.

Another of the few truthful confessions is by Alice when she tells Larry in the strip club that her name is Jane Jones, although we do not know this at the time and expect it to be another diversion from the truth on her part. We assume that Alice is not her real name, se we do not immediately accept another name to necessarily be her correct one. Her entire relationship with Dan is essentially based on a lie, a lie that he only uncovers at the conclusion of the film, when he has all but lost her forever. Each of the characters read others in relation to themselves with the idea of the truth being exclusive to the individual, which is a feature that applies to all humanity. At the point of a relationship the film seems to suggest that humans are biologically programmed to be selfish and transformed into someone completely different during a 'struggling' relationship. Richard Zoglin, in his review of the film for Time Magazine states, "Closer is a bruising dissection of modern relationships, where jealousy abounds, sex becomes a subject even when it's not, total honesty is not the best policy and people with choices often make the wrong one." It is a shrewd piece of contemporary-realism, exploring the raw nerve of pain that comes with the territory of love, and setting off sympathetic vibrations in anyone who has experience anything close to what these characters experience in the film.

Typically, relationships are filled with paradoxes. For instance, only a certain amount of distance will grant you true intimacy and too much truthfulness is at times more dishonest than outright lies. Closer is a film that forces you to ask questions about relationships, to identify the flaws in these unstable human beings and to question which flaws you yourself possess. Some viewers might feel they have very little in common with these people; others might, but a majority of viewers are likely to be fascinated by the raw emotions on display. The Internet sex scene between Larry and Dan is entertaining, but also psychologically interesting. Larry, thinking his partner is a female named Anna, becomes aroused at the content of discussion, while Dan is just messing around with Larry. Comically, this is a sex scene between two 'heterosexual' men, and one of the few instances of successful erotic communication between any two people in the film. This leads to a meet between Larry and Anna, and many of the later events in the film stem from this playful exchange between the men. This film is a determinate of how wonderfully troubled we are as humans, and as individuals.

All four characters are searching for things they never ultimately find - love, intimacy, companionship and truth. As Ulrich Broich recognises, "the characters want to get 'closer' to their partners, but as the sexual act has becomes a matter of routine it has lost its reality" and the film excruciatingly covers the period where these couples lose their passion. There seems to be little hope for any of the characters. Patrick Hayes offers an interpretation of hope by "seeing the 'caveman-like' doctor Larry as the hero, rather than Dan the writer as the anti-hero." Unlike Dan, Larry is both aware of himself and his relationship with other people. Although he is far from emotionally detached from events, Larry knows how to manipulate them and as a result, Larry wins in the end because of his ability to control a situation and exhibit a fluidity of traits that the others do not possess. Larry is essentially a giant puppet-master over naive characters that are not aware of the logic underpinning their own actions, and is arguably the most admirable character in the film.

It is interesting to note the 'explicit sexual references' present purely in the dialogue of Closer. There are no gratuitous sexual images in the film, but due to its originality and subsequent adaptation from a stage play, the topic of relationships and sex is present in almost every conversation between the characters. Any over-exposures that are filmed are conveniently covered (Alice's strip at the nightclub for example) or removed entirely. It may be best to judge Closer as the study of the logic of relationships rather than judging it for its realism. Patrick Marber has proven he is well equipped at examining the physical relationship and offers a map of the structures and character traits people exhibit when indulging in a narcissistic relationship, a map with which everyone would be wise to become acquainted, but certainly not attempt to replicate. 

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