This film is beautiful, terrible, and real. Sadly, in a world where we're used to hearing stories in the simplest and most easy to swallow terms, I doubt that the average lover of romantic comedies and action flicks will like it. This is a story about the perpetual struggles found in human relationships and if you're used to seeing on-screen romance played out with operatic tragedy, (The English Patient) fable-like tenderness (Like Water for Chocolate), or perfect endings (Officer and a Gentleman), you might be out of luck with this movie. If, however, you think you'd like to see something a little more up-close, complex and real, this might be a movie that will change the way you think about love.
This is a film that focuses less on individuals, and more on the relationships between those individuals. If the four characters in Closer were represented by four points on a map, this movie would be a study of the lines that cross between those points, rather than the points themselves. In this way, we can easily see ourselves and each other in what happens on screen: you don't have to be a photographer to relate to Julia Roberts' self-loathing adulterer, because the film doesn't strive to tell the story of where she came from or why she takes pictures. For her character, it strives to tell the story of someone completely overcome both with lust and with the guilt that accompanies it. These two compulsions feed off of each other so feverishly that she cannot find happiness either in acting on her lust or in abstaining. Telling this side and only this side of her story helps it become more universal, as do the stories of her surrounding characters.
Patrick Marber made only a few changes in adapting his play to the screen, resulting in distinctly theatre-esquire dialog. This intense stylization helps the unconventional narrative seep into your unconscious: with the characters speaking a slightly altered language, it becomes easier to accept their slightly altered depiction of romantic entanglements. Make no mistake, Closer pulls no punches when it comes to the ugly side of romance, of commitment, of love and of the need to be loved.
Marber seems to be preoccupied with the way a slighted lover will beg or even demand to know every excruciating detail about their lover's infidelity. This inexplicable and seemingly masochistic phenomenon pervades Closer on both a literal and thematic level, because Marber has a very simple and universal idea to present. This need to hear these painful truths is the thesis of Closer. What we're soon able to see through the weaving of the characters' relationships is that this desire is a manifestation of any lover's need to possess his or her beloved. The victim of an infidelity grapples not just with the pain of betrayal but also with the inescapable knowledge of a most intimate element of their lover that will never, ever be theirs. In the same way that a man might find himself unable to live with the knowledge of his girlfriend's past sexual encounters (a la Chasing Amy), the cheated-on man or woman has to confront their pain, however irrational, for being unable to think of every element of their partner as their own.
Closer revolves around this theme. On the one hand, it does this through the literal story of a man wanting to know the details of how and where and with whom his wife cheated on him, vainly trying to take back those intimate moments and claim them as his own. On the other hand, however, Closer uses this theme in a much more general way. A man may grasp at the lustful experiences of his wife, trying to reverse his exclusion from them, but the way that grasping is employed in Closer shows us that even if it weren't for the infidelity, he would be grasping anyway. We all would. Our need to feel we have complete possession of our lover is what drives us to desperately dig deeper and deeper, trying to gain some secret knowledge of who and what they are at their most pure and uncompromised level.
In the end, however, this level doesn't exist. The digging, the struggling and the grasping is futile as no person can be reduced to a singular truth. We are an entirely different thing, practically a different animal, from moment to moment. As Natalie Portman's character so perfectly illustrates by the end, even the most mundane details about who we are can turn out to be transitory or meaningless. That's not a pretty area of human life to shine a light on but Mike Nichols does it and with an unflinching ability. If it's a perspective you're prepared to spend some time considering, Closer might just be the movie to get the ball rolling.