Whatever Happened to Movie Sex?

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All this is in Marber's 1997 play, which the film follows closely — nearly as faithfully as Nichols attended to "Virginia Woolf" (when, famously, only 18 words were added to the play script, and a few words taken out). "Mike said if I wanted to direct a film of it he would happily produce it," Marber told Tyrangiel. "Or if I didn't want to direct it, he would. He just wanted to be involved in the material." Then the two went over the play, scene by scene. "Mike and I discussed it, but it was more that we read the scenes to each other; most of the scenes are two-handers (dialogues with two people). I'd be Alice, he'd be Dan — though he'd be Alice quite a lot. He's an excellent Alice."

What Nichols and his cast bring to the piece is the eloquence of gesture. Each of the actors has telling little moments: Portman's busyness with a stranger's glasses; the slouch of Law's shoulders when his ego takes the impact of another sandbag; the tightening of Owen's smile to signal he's morphing from victim to predator; the sting Roberts reveals behind her eyes when she's chastised. (Nichols flatteringly calls Roberts "the CNN of actresses: on the closeup you actually see a crawl, noun-by-noun, adjective-by-adjective, of what she's thinking.") They keep every scene rich and lively, in a film of cutting words and subtle gestures. It's also attuned to the language, and body language, of evasion — the way people lie to spare feelings, mostly their own. Some much is said, and left unsaid, by evasive glances. Women can read these looks like books; men are usually a little less fluent in that language.

Another way "Closer" diverges from the standard Hollywood movie is that it allows, insists on, multiple points of view and shifting audience allegiances. "People are going to switch depending on their emotional history," Owen says. "Have they been betrayed? Have they betrayed somebody? I think all of us of a certain age — all of us who have had any average experience of sex — have, to some extent, been in some of these scenes. And depending on your experience, that's where you sit. So it's not like one character takes you through the journey, and you experience all the ups and downs of that character."

Other movies create lead characters who seem at first unsympathetic but then reveal, fairly obviously, their redeeming or heroic nature. These reductive moral tales sell the big lie that in life there are heroes and villains, that the good we seek is easily distinguishable from the good-bad we do. "Closer" introduces the viewer to four glamorous folks with severe but recognizable fissures in their facades. Not like movie people. Like people.


"Closer" seems pretty simple: four people screwing each other, in both senses of the term. It's not exactly "Last Year at Marienbad." Yet there's a lot of difference on what the piece is about. Women I know say it's about phallocracy in the so-called age of sexual equality: how men can't just be with women, they have to win her from some other guy, or punish the other guy when she leaves.

Even the creators can't agree. Marber, who should know, says, "I always maintain, and still maintain, that it's a love story, because everything that happens in the piece is driven by love. Of course it's also about competition and sex and loneliness and all these other things. But it's not just about war. It's about love and war."

Nichols couldn't agree less. "I think that it's a movie about aggression," he says. "And about assessing where you stand in some kind of comparison. One of the great dangers of living in Hollywood, and the reason it's really unwise, is that it's very hard to fight the virus: 'How am I perceived?' And once you preoccupy yourself with that question you're pretty much lost. It's all over Hollywood: you can see whether your stock has gone up or down in the eyes of the parking attendant." Gee: If a top director can feel threatened by a sharp glance from the valet guy at Morton's, either Nichols needs help or the valet should be an actor. (Which he probably is anyway.)

But he also can't agree with himself. Pick one of the statements below:

  • "I think it's about the truth and lying, and the unacknowledged importance of lying in love."
  • "It's like 'Dangerous Liaisons.' It's altogether more like 'Dangerous Liaisons' than 'Carnal Knowledge.' It's about strategy."
  • "This is about things ancillary to sex. In 'Was he better than me?' What's the important thing there? Is it the sex, endowment, technique? Or feelings between people. And I think that the film sort of makes a distinction."

    Here's my take: I think the movie is about love, at its first and last stages. The film says that falling in love is cooler, and hotter, than being in love, because it's inherently dramatic, as any declaration of adventure is. It says that getting is better than having — that the greatest act of love is Act One, when a man sets out to win a woman over. To win something, as Benjamin in "The Graduate" was so eager to do.

    The film also says that sex is power, while love is the surrendering of power, or at least a search for mature compromise. That search isn't anything so thrilling as a quest. It's just life, and maybe the most satisfying part of it. Not to win someone but to know someone, know the complexities, the faults and the pain, of another person. "I love everything about you that hurts," Larry says to Alice. "Closer" is about whatever hurts in you, the viewer.


    "I think sex in a movie is boring," Nichols says, "just as a scene of someone eating dinner is not that interesting" His own favorite sex scenes tend to the suggestive. "Rita Hayworth shaking off that long glove in 'Gilda' is still as sexy as it gets in movies. The (famous) scene in 'Basic Instinct,' of Sharon Stone crossing and uncrossing her legs, is very sexy and very funny, primarily because it's about control and power. To me the sexiest thing I've ever seen is in 'Repulsion,' when Catherine Deneuve is lying on the bed and her sister is coming in the next room. That's sexy." 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 effect people's behavior."

    That's what you get in "Closer." No frontal nudity, not with the persistently modest Roberts and Portman as the female stars; that would be a sure sign of the End of Days. But something more liberating: the discussion of sex and its even more elusive sibling, love. "It's because of Patrick's brilliant writing and Mike's direction," Law told TIME's Philadelphia, "that the piece is very sexual without having any sex in it whatsoever." 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.

    "This is a brutally cold movie," Kirk Honeycutt wrote in his Hollywood Reporter review, "where the characters invite our disgust and love feels like a brittle four-letter word.... This is not a movie anyone is going to warm up to." Well, I did. I was warm from the start — not aroused but excited that so much classy conniving was unfolding before my eyes. Here's a movie that's alive at every moment; for me, there was no emotional downtime.

    I agree with Owen that "Closer" is "an adult drama. It's adults talking about sex and fucking each other and the pain of breakup. But even at its most shocking, it's never less than very witty and intelligent. It's a proper grown-up piece of writing about people having sex and the problems that can come with that. And it's got very well-written dialogue. It's such a treat to be able to have such language at your disposal. Dialogue used to be much more important in movies, and we've lost that." Thanks to Marber's invigorating wit, "Closer" restores the need to pay attention to what's said on screen. It's been some time at the movies since we've used those delicate organs, our ears, for processing much more than punch lines and gunfire.

    I also agree with Marber: the movie's achievement is that "it manages to be realistic and dreamlike simultaneously. We wanted that semi-hallucinogenic atmosphere without seeming fantastic. We wanted it to feel like being in love, which is hermetic. It just keeps out the rest of the world." The films draws viewers into this world, allows them to fall in love with it, even as it sets them at a distance from the scurvier action of the characters. Are they beneath you? No: they're you, man. (And woman.) As we watch, the screen turns from a window to a mirror. We see ourselves, and smile, and squirm. So if you're shopping for a cunning comedy that you can fall in love with (without necessarily loving the people in it), "Closer" is the buy of the holiday season.

    It's terrific that a part-time moviemaker has directed so many films that cogently exploring the language of sex. But it does suggest that the rest of Hollywood isn't really trying. Seeing "Closer," teetering from empathy to exasperation with each of its characters as one would with a real lover, 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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