Let's Talk About Sex

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TORN ASUNDER: Owen, Portman, Roberts and Law play the couples game

No sadistic cop could grill a suspect with more brutal intensity than a man brings to the job of questioning the woman who's about to walk out on him. In just a few minutes, Larry (Clive Owen) has experienced the first five stages of the cuckolded male: denial, derision, pleading, sobbing, threatening. Now, in confronting Anna (Julia Roberts) about her lover Dan (Jude Law), he atavizes into Caveman, the alpha male in competitive fury. "Where did you make love: What parts of the house, what parts of the body?" "How did Dan perform?" "Was he 'better'?" "Gentler," she acknowledges, depleted by the hard truths he's forcing out of her. "Sweeter." Larry finally has what he wanted: the instant, utter and mutual eradication of their year-long love. "Thank you for your honesty," he tells her. "Now f___ off and die."

It's a pulverizing few minutes in Closer, the funny, hurtful, splendidly acted new film that Mike Nichols has made from Patrick Marber's play and screenplay. The scene leaves the audience as flush and drained as the participants. "I thought we were way past being able to shock anybody," says Nichols, 73, who has directed his fair share of cinematic sexual frissons. "But people are shocked. It's not necessarily because of the language but because things that usually go unexplored are explored in public. Some people are armed against it. They say, 'I just don't know those people.' Well, they're you, man!"

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In dissecting Larry, Anna, Dan and the younger Alice (Natalie Portman) as they change partners over a four-year span in the London '90s, Closer is at first playful about the deceptions this handsome quartet of characters commit while falling in love and climbing out of it. After all, as Alice declares, "lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off." But if lying has a toxic residue, the truth can kill instantly. Larry, in interrogating Anna, casts off all pride to find the self-lacerating, the ultimate male truth. Was he better?

Closer runs counter to the numbing predictability of most current films: the inevitable plot points of revenge and uplift, the reduction of human beings to heroes and villains, the avoidance of complexity in sexual matters. If a batch of recent movies were to ask, "Are we sexier, more mature — better — than films of 30 years ago?", the brutal, truthful answer would be, "No way."

It's true that films are more sex-obsessed these days. All of pop culture is. Americans listen to Howard Stern, giggle over Janet Jackson, collect unrated DVD editions of the American Pie movies, gossip about celebrities' dirty secrets. We ogle (and then condemn) the dropping of a towel on a Monday Night Football teaser, leaf through Jenna Jameson's How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, log onto the Internet and bathe in all that warm cyberswill. But all this is essentially kid stuff, somewhere between adolescent and infantile in its voyeuristic avidity. It codifies the randy talk in a boys' tree house: the boasts and jokes and threats that mask the fear of (Ugh! Gross!) growing up.

Contrast today with the early 1970s, when movies like Straw Dogs, The Devils, Last Tango in Paris and Nichols' own Carnal Knowledge promised a future of truly adult depictions of sex. At the same time, the first wave of porno chic lured the curious to the burgeoning genre of hard-core. It seemed as if these two types of films might meet — that cinema might learn to depict the ordinary, universal and melodramatic collision of two bodies, two souls, in bed. But those days, and those hopes, are deader than disco. Hollywood's erotic audacity and artistic pretensions have shriveled ever since.

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