Let's Talk About Sex

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CLIVE COOTE / COLUMBIA

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

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Each of the actors has little moments like this: the slouch of Law's shoulders when his ego takes another sandbag, the tightening of Owen's smile to signal he's morphing from victim into avenger, the sting Roberts reveals behind her eyes when she's chastised. (Nichols compliments Roberts as "the CNN of actresses: on the close-up you actually see a crawl — noun by noun, adjective by adjective — of what she's thinking.") They keep Closer alive and lively, worth watching for clues even as we attend to the wit of Marber's dialogue. It's a film of cutting words and subtle sign language.

"I think sex in a movie is boring," Nichols says, "just as a scene of someone eating dinner is not that interesting." His favorite sex scenes tend to the suggestive: Rita Hayworth shaking off a glove in Gilda; Catherine Deneuve, in Repulsion, listening as her sister has sex in the next room. Anything more explicit is, to Nichols, just clinical. "Sex is very powerful as part of a fantasy, part of what glues you to someone, part of what makes life with one person the great adventure. But to stare directly at it is to be wasting most of what's available in drama and in film: the resonances, the things you don't see but that affect people's behavior."

That's what you get in Closer. "It's because of Patrick's brilliant writing and Mike's direction," says Law, "that the piece is very sexual without having any [explicit] sex in it." Plus a few bits that might make some future director's list of favorite sexy scenes: a long, steamy kiss between Law and Roberts; a lap dance that Portman performs for Owen. And as we watch, we see ourselves, and smile or squirm.

It's terrific that a part-time moviemaker has directed so many films that cogently explore the language of sex. But it suggests that the rest of Hollywood isn't really trying. The occasional indie movie of today might have a warmly erotic scene (as inP.S.) or portray adults seduced and baffled by sexual possibilities (Kinsey), but mature audacity is in pretty short supply. Seeing Closer, teetering from empathy with to disapproval of each of its characters, a moviegoer has to wonder, Why can't there be a dozen, a hundred, films like this? Where's the good and bad sex in movies? Why can't directors locate where we live, how we love and lie to each other, and get closer to it?

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