What the Film “Closer” (2004) Tells Us About Love and Intimacy

Welcome to my new film analysis series, where I finally put my film degree to use! Spoilers ahead.

Directed by Mike Nichols, the 2004 film Closer is based on a stage play by Patrick Marber. I can usually tell when movies are based on plays because characters get stuck in the same few locations talking at each other. Closer hides it well, almost, by getting the actors out on city streets so there is a sense of movement. It is still dialogue-heavy but so well-written and performed that the words seem to create their own form of action—and violence.

I can't remember when I first watched Closer. I must've borrowed the DVD from the library over a decade ago, intrigued by the all-star cast on the cover. I remember liking it more than I thought I would and I understood it as much as I could have at that age, but it's a film one can only appreciate with more life experience. Some might dismiss the story as a quadrangle of beautiful but miserable people who fail at loving each other. I rewatched it recently, and it has so much more to say about relationships. Romance is not love. Intimacy has nothing to do with nudity. You might not even know who your partner is no matter how many years you sleep with them.

Dan (Jude Law), an obituarist for a London paper, is the type of man who falls for women fast and hard. After meeting Alice (Natalie Portman), he dumps his girlfriend to be with her. The two become inseparable, and he finally finds material for a novel in Alice's former life as a stripper in New York.

When he gets his photo taken for the book jacket, he becomes infatuated with Anna (Julia Roberts) the photographer. Although they kiss in the studio, Anna rejects him after learning he has a live-in girlfriend. Dan admits that Alice is young, adorable, and completely unleavable, but he needs to see Anna again. Anna says no; she is not a thief.

“You’ve ruined my life,” Dan tells her. 

“You’ll get over it” Anna replies coolly. 

In the proceeding months, Dan stalks Anna outside the photo studio. Although she's in a new relationship with Larry (Clive Owens), a dermatologist, Anna finally relents to Dan's advances. Dan confesses to Alice he's been cheating on her with Anna. Alice is distraught and packs to leave. Dan explains he had fallen in love with Anna as if he were a victim in all this.

“As if you had no choice?” Alice retorts. “There’s a moment. There’s always a moment. ‘I can do this, I can give in to this, or I can resist it.' And I don’t know when your moment was, but I bet you there was one."

Alice is vulnerable but also possesses the toughness and emotional intelligence of someone who only had herself to rely on from an early age. In describing to Anna what he thought of Alice when he met her at Anna's photo exhibition, Larry says, “She has the moronic beauty of youth, but she’s sly.” When Alice visited Dan outside Anna's photography studio, she immediately knew something was up just by the look on his face.

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Clive Owens and Natalie Portman in Closer

Anna also separates from Larry, even though they've married recently. Things go well with Dan for a while, but when Anna meets with Larry to ask him to sign the divorce papers, he requests that they sleep together one last time. Then he will leave her and Dan alone. When Anna tells Dan the good news that Larry has finally signed, Dan suspects that Anna has slept with Larry. Anna admits to it, saying she did it for them.

“Why didn’t you lie to me?” Dan asks.

“Because we said we’d always tell each other the truth,” Anna replies.

“What’s so great about the truth? Try lying for a change. It’s the currency of the world.”

Anna can tell something has changed within Dan. “Don’t stop loving me. I can see it draining out of you.”

Sensing the relationship is doomed, Anna leaves Dan to go back to Larry. A heartbroken Dan visits Larry at his sleek new office, demanding he let Anna go.

“You love her like a dog loves its owner,” Dan accuses of Larry.

“And the owner loves the dog for so doing.” Larry is smug because he has won. But he quickly loses patience with Dan's outbursts. “Have you ever seen a human heart? It looks like a fist wrapped in blood. Go fuck yourself. You writer! You liar!"

Larry makes "writer" a pejorative, spitting out the word with disdain. Dan is not just a writer but a failed one. His novel about Alice didn't sell.

"You don’t know the first thing about love because you don’t understand compromise," Larry adds. He assessed Dan well. Dan equates love with romance. Which was why he failed as a writer. Good writers tell the truth through fiction. Bad ones serve up fantasies that sound pretty but lack substance.

Larry prescribes an antidote to Dan's heartbreak, that he return to Alice. Larry found her by chance at a strip club. She danced for him in a private room at the low point of his heartbreak. Larry accused Alice of wearing armor even while stripping. He threw a bunch of money at Alice to tell him her real name, demanding intimacy. "Jane," she told him over and over again. Before Dan leaves the office, Larry reveals that he had sex with Alice.

Alice takes Dan back. With her stripping money, she buys plane tickets to take Dan to New York for a vacation. Before the early flight, they stay at a hotel near the airport. Dan reminisces about the first time they met on the street. "You were perfect," he says.

But Anna doesn't feel she's good enough to be loved. She has to play a role, especially to Dan who already left her once. When Dan wants her to admit that she slept with Larry, Alice asks why he wants to know the truth.

“I’m addicted to it. Because without it we’re animals.” Dan wants to believe that. Alice is smart enough to see through it; she knows Dan can't handle the truth. He will come to hate her. She breaks up with him.

"I can't lie. And I can't tell the truth. So it's over." 

Alice goes to New York alone. At passport control, we learn her real name is in fact Jane. Dan couldn't have stolen her life for his book because he didn't really know her. He's a bad writer because he doesn't know how to get to the heart of his protagonist, and he's a bad boyfriend because he can't see his partner beyond his own desires. Alice must have wanted to take Dan to New York so he could finally learn her real name, so she could finally be known to him. But he's oblivious, and as hard as he tries near the end, he's too selfish to put his partner's comfort above his. Dan ends up alone, only discovering that Alice is an alias once she is long gone.

The couple who stay together are Larry and Anna. While they are dysfunctional individuals, they have found a way to make things work. Shortly after they married, Larry returned from a business trip and confessed to having slept with a whore.

"Why did you tell me?" Anna asked.

"Because I couldn't lie to you."

"Why not?"

"Because I love you."

He was prepared for Anna to leave him, but the truth was more important. His confession gave Anna the opening to admit her affair with Dan. Larry asked about their sex life, and Anna gave him all the lurid details. He was furious but he still wanted to stay with Anna.

Anna knew her relationship couldn't last with Dan because his love was conditional. With Larry, Anna can be herself with all her faults and "disgusting" secrets and still have Larry's love. Maybe not complete faithfulness, but at least brutal honesty and acceptance.

What are your thoughts on Closer? Let us know in the comments below.


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