Let's Talk About Sex

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

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"I would argue that sex has very rarely been portrayed in the movies," says Owen, who played Dan in the original stage production of Closer before becoming Larry in the film. "It's always there as titillation, and it's often not about anything. But if you look at our lives, it's an interesting world that we inhabit when we're relating in a sexual way. And movies rarely go there."

Somewhere, there must be talented filmmakers who present sex intelligently onscreen. Yes, and most of them are in Europe, where people have been grownup for ages. France's Catherine Breillat has three movies — Fat Girl, Sex Is Comedy and Anatomy of Hell — in current U.S. art-house release or just out on DVD. In these fascinating acts of cinematic aggression, which either skirt hard-core or plunge right in, Breillat strips her heroines to the bleeding soul. Anatomy of Hell, Breillat's latest, is notorious for the objects — a rake, a lipstick case, a tampon — used as sexual implements. Across the Channel, Michael Winterbottom (Jude, Welcome to Sarajevo) tries to span the chasm separating serious cinema from hard-core with his new 9 Songs. Here the sex is explicit but tender, less a porn-film workout than a view of two people trying, for a while, to become one.

But we shan't wish for the impossible. Jude and Julia are not going to shag onscreen. Movie sex, however, doesn't have to be Show; it can be Tell. It can reveal startling erotic truths about the characters, about us, without so much as a spangled breast. It can talk about sex and, in Closer, talk brilliantly. What's surprising is that some of the finest movie sex talk has been in films by Nichols, a man originally renowned for his deft comic touch, first in the funny, painful sketches he wrote and performed with Elaine May, then as a director of Neil Simon plays on Broadway.

Nichols' first movie, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in 1966, a scrupulous transposition of Edward Albee's Tony-winning play about a rancorous married couple, raised temperatures, eyebrows and hackles throughout the film world. As Nichols recalls, "We weren't allowed to say 'Screw you' in Virginia Woolf. We had to take it out." His next film, The Graduate, in 1967, detailed the passive, loveless affair between a young man and his girlfriend's mother, and daringly mixed physical comedy with the most desperate romance. His boldest film was 1971's Carnal Knowledge, which traced 30 years in the sexual lives of two perpetually immature men. The excoriating chatter in Jules Feiffer's screenplay would be familiar to anyone who has sat at a bar while the guy three stools down pours out his little black heart, but it was new for mainstream movies. Its echo can be heard in Closer.

The scheme of Closer is simple: two people become a couple, break up, pair off with someone new. Dan and Alice become a couple, then Anna and Larry, then Dan and Anna and, briefly, Larry and Alice. We are shown only the beginning and end of each affair, when hopes are surging or betrayal sours the air. The piece is a series of cardiograms: hearts open and shut down. "Have you ever seen a human heart?" says Larry, a doctor. "It looks like a fist soaked in blood."

All this is in Marber's play, which the film follows closely. What Nichols and his cast bring to it is the eloquence of gesture. At the start of the film, on a London street, Dan is stalking Alice, or just appreciatively lurking, and when she gets hit by a vehicle he Galahads her into a cab. They are strangers, but in the forced intimacy of a back seat she removes his glasses, breathes on them and returns them. Her flirtation is a way of both expressing interest and asserting control. (You're a mess, her fiddling says, but I'm thinking of taking you on.)

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