Closer: Psycho-sexual gymnastics


It’s difficult to ‘like’ “Closer”, but it’s difficult to simply dismiss it either – and this makes it an interesting film.

I have been watching and re-watching Patrick Marber’s (1994) film adaptation of his stage drama for about 5 years; I have been enthralled every single time without every really putting my finger on exactly what I am have been enthralled with. Yes, the cast is beautiful and talented and this never hurts. Yes, it has some sexual titillation but, I don’t think I am quite at the point of needing my thrills quite so vicariously (yet!) and yes, it is directed by Mike Nichols of “The Graduate” and (more interestingly for this post) “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (WAoVW). All of these elements appeal to me for various reasons but even when combined, they don’t quite explain my ongoing fascination and so, I am going to attempt to articulate that fascination right here.

Like WAoVW before it, “Closer” tackles the subject/s of intimacy and the cost we sometimes pay for allowing intimacy into our lives. Also like WAoVW, “Closer” looks at infidelity and sexual one-upmanship, highlighting the pain we cause those we purport to love when we seek only to fulfill our own desire/s. Based around 2 rotating couples (Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen) who each inevitably use, need, manipulate and betray the other/s as they spin in and out of each others’ lives. “Closer” is a nasty film in the way that WAoVW was a nasty film – it shines an unflinching light on how love does not necessarily bring out the best in us, and perhaps even asks us to consider if love even exists for these characters at all or if they are all just playing a game of spin the partner.

One of the most disturbing scenes is when Dan (Law) comes home to (then) partner Alice (Portman) and declares “This is gonna hurt” and proceeds to confess that he has been sleeping with Anna (Roberts) for the past 12 months and is now leaving Alice for her. Alice becomes increasingly fearful and distressed as she begins to realise that she is actually losing Dan, it feels almost barbarous to sit and witness her distress as it mounts and she asks imploringly for Dan to hug her and although he does, we, as those who have perhaps been in similar break-ups, recognise that really, Dan simply wishes that Alice would vanish so that he can get on with being with the other woman in his life without the complication of Alice. Perhaps this is what drives my discomfort – the recognition that I have done this myself to somebody that I claimed to love and to care about – I have ‘wished’ them out-of-the-way, I am complicit with this rather revolting character as he smashes young Alice’s heart into smithereens.

Natalie Portman as 'Alice'

Natalie Portman as ‘Alice’

By the end of course, young Alice is shown to be far from the innocent ingénue that she portrayed herself to be, in fact, she may just be the most devious of them all (and this is seriously disturbing). For while the vitriolic Larry (Owens) who cannot help but see female sexuality as something to be conquered and boasted about, the indecisive and somewhat devious Anna and the rather pathetic and deluded Dan are all incredibly flawed characters, it is the waif-like stripper Alice who has truly been wearing armour all along, even if she does prove to be the most honest of them all.


9 thoughts on “Closer: Psycho-sexual gymnastics

  1. No problems ‘shanshu’ 🙂
    Anyhow, your blog on research/academia is excellent…
    Hoping to read more stuff from u on films and beyond….

  2. A brilliant review cheers…
    Natalie portmans acting chops eclipsed even her body lol
    Btw recently jake gyllenhal is getting all the praise for ‘prisoners’..
    But don’t think he can match the ‘sincerity’ and calibre of performance that her sis maggie achieved in ‘secretary’…
    Recently stumbled upon that flick–and loved it..
    What did u feel about ‘secretary’ ..

    • I watched Secretary a very long time ago now – but I recall Maggie G being excellent (it was a dark little tale from memory). I should def re-view it.

      Agree about Portman’s performance here – not that I was looking at her body .. honest ..hehe

      • “not that I was looking at her body “– hehe that’s difficult if u are a bloke …
        Btw JR still has charisma .

        . Even in the forgettable low key Larry Crowne she made ‘Mercedes’ interesting …
        By the way–what do u feel about the upcoming 50shadesofgrey adaptation 🙂

      • Not exactly related to the ‘topic’, but if u are into music of various genres and in the mood for some reasonable acting chops, check this flick.. Had jotted some random thoughts on it …


        Don’t get taken in by the slightly ‘senior citizen’ look of the promo. Had the same vibe myself, but was coaxed to to it out by a musician friend (the idyllic location helped!). I ended up liking it better than the musician buddy who got hung up with some technicalities of string music. As I’ve said earlier, a good film doesn’t come with reputations, statutory warnings or groundwork-it works for itself! These words dont convey my complete sentiments on this film and so have used some key extracts from those I value. The moments when and idea for a story, the intelligence of a script to tell it, the sensitivity of the director to make it work, and the cast of extraordinary actors to make it visual come all too infrequently these days in the films that cross our theater screens. It is such a complete success on so many levels that it should be considered a standard for filmmaking excellence. It is cerebral, yes, it is best appreciated by people who are involved in some way with classical music even if that be solely as an audience, but the dynamics of this little ‘community’ of people drawn together by a lasting contract to rehearse and perform for the better part of their time and the effect of physical proximity and the risks of intellectual/artistic distances have rarely been so exquisitely painted.

        The honored Fugue Quartet has been living and performing together for 25 years: first violin Daniel Lerner (Ukrainian American actor Mark Ivanir), second violin Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman), cellist Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walkmen), and violist Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Keener) make such perfect music together that we would never guess their lives are askew. Peter is diagnosed as
        having Parkinson’s Disease and understands that his performing days are now severely limited; the Gelbart’s marriage is at risk because of the tatters of time and the dealing with daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots) who reacts to her history of being an alone child by entering into a physical affair with obsessive Daniel and Robert’s ill-advised one night stand with the young beautiful Pilar (Liraz Charhi); Robert’s surfacing jealousy of wanting to be first violin: the struggle with whether the quartet should disband due to Peter’s illness or continue with a new cellist. All of this complex interplay of human relationships is underlined by the quartet’s rehearing of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, opus 131 – a long quartet of seven movements played without interval. It is a sensitively drawn allegory that takes us all the way to the end of the film.
        In addition to the bravura acting of the four lead actors there are side stories that are enormously touching: the affair between Alexandra and Daniel, the conflict between Alexandra and her absentee mother (a brilliant scene), the schism between Robert and Juliette as the foundation of their marriage begins to crumble, and the extraordinarily sensitive moment when Peter longs for his deceased wife Miriam – as the image of Miriam (Anne Sofie von Otter) is seen and heard in is mind.
        An obvious glory of the film is its music. Beethoven’s No.14, Op.131 is one of his most profound late quartets, and its colours illuminate the drama that develops, right up to the climactic concert.
        The film does two other things miraculously well. First, it takes us behind the scenes and convincingly shows us how a musical ensemble works — or fails to work. Anyone who has performed music with other people — even in a rock group — will recognise themselves in these characters. Secondly, A Late Quartet cleverly dramatises its central message, which is that some combinations of people are much greater than they could ever be on their own or in another group.
        To add, this has a grope of middle aged /ageing actors but has a universal theme executed maturely and sensitively whilst maintaining the requisite sentimentality and gravitas. For ‘real’ music lovers.
        But above all, this one has no big budgeted franchise, no action set pieces, not even pseudo-reputation helping along and definitely not red bikini clad/ superhero costume laden ‘extravaganzas’. But it’s got not one but multiple acting clinics and many superbly nuanced acting moments.
        Some good acting moments I remember –
        Walken– the slightest quiver of Walken’s hands as he lays eyes on his cello — once an object he knew so intimately, it has cruelly turned into a constant reminder of inadequacy.Seymour Hoffman–gettin rid of his beard just before the crucial concert–was like having a life rethought …Mark Ivanir-a guy immersed in achieving perfection & a superbly understated act(I personally liked it a lot). Catherine Keener and Imogen Poots both had their moments..
        Perhaps the moment was where Walken finally publically accepts his decline and disability and declares mid-performance that this will be his last performance ever….
        My own liking for ‘ a late quartet’ made me question my own tastes! Nobody I know (including a musician friend) liked it or had even seen it. U then look for the minority who are with u-(on the net)–like this one….
        “Our instruments must, in time, go out of tune, each in its own and quite different way.”
        A Late Quartet is a dramatization of the intertwining problems of the members of a string quartet: a film that ironically also is the main topic of the movie, a meticulously composed musical piece.
        This wonderful albeit slow composition stroke just the right chords for me. When it comes to my personal musical taste, I am a bit indifferent with the classical genre: in certain moods, I can enjoy it, but I don’t consider myself a lover or fan of the music. However, after seeing A Late Quartet, my appreciation of violin grew at least a little bit, especially because I could see what it was trying to do for the movie. As I mentioned, the film metaphorically resembles the main element of the story: it is a violin quartet. Frequently, it falls out of its regular pace, but returns from this with power every single time. This is what I found to be the main achievement of A Late Quartet. It effectively made the music a metaphor for the story.
        If it wasn’t for this stylistic addition to the story, the plot outline would have never been as smart as it was right now. Without this backbone, it would have been a relatively empty drama about an unrealistic turn of events. However, because of this classy take on what happens to the characters in the film, it feels much like a Victorian age drama – which still is quite disturbing at heart. A Late Quartet does not include love triangles, it features love quartets or even freaking pentagrams. Much of the film reminded me of Roman Polanski’s Carnage with its witty dialogue and amazing acting. This film officially confirms it for me: Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of my favorite actors. For me, he convincingly stole the show in A Late Quartet, which is incredible, keeping in mind that he is in the same cast as Christopher Walken. I would never speak bad of Walken either though, he was almost just as stellar as Hoffman. Come to think of it, the cast was solid all round, making this
        depressing story not nearly as blue as it could have been. Again here, I am thankful for the metaphorical meaning of the quartet. The ups and downs that only the tones of a string instrument can transform into music might bring the movie’s tone out of balance sometimes, but one way or another, it still felt very much as a whole.
        In contrast to the rest of the film, I have a difficult time with bring the camerawork to words. It is undoubtedly beautiful, but I did have my problems with the pacing of the film. Although it worked for the concept of the movie, in the eye of arthouse, A Late Quartet is still quite slow – and that says something. Oddly enough, the classical score amplifies this. Don’t get me wrong, the score was very well-done, but I think it is just me considering classical music too slow (I don’t want to call it boring) that slowed the film down even more for me. I can imagine that this is different for others who are able to appreciate this genre of music more, so I highly recommend this film for anyone who considers him or herself to be a part of this group.
        In sum, A Late Quartet is exactly like the classical piece that it discusses most: Beethoven’s Opus 131. It is slow at times, played with quick passion sometimes (or attaque in pretentious terms) and all the more beautiful for a certain set of people. Even if you do not belong to this category, there is no denying that the screenplay is powerful. The audience distinction only brings this movie from a “good” to a “great” rating.”
        Have never been a fan of Christopher Walken! But this film showed how actors can turn a new leaf (for you) even so late in their careers (as Walken). His predicament and dilemma here seems even more disturbing because hes done demonic, monster-ish fearless characters.Read this somewhere and fitted with my own views
        It’s unnerving to see Walken confront his own mortality. Yet his character in A Late Quartet shares similarities with his villains; Walken specialises in creating a sense of deep-rooted psychological damage, such that even when he has a blank expression on his face, there is something in his empty eyes that is like volcanic molten rock.
        But as i always say—Even pure madness deserves a ‘method’!!

  3. Pingback: Break up films (kinda sorta) | Drowning-By-Letters

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