Mike Nichols opens his new film "Closer" with the exquisitely beautiful sextet from the final act of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro." It's the moment in that glorious story of love when all mismatched relationships are resolved, and each person is set back into his or her proper place. Nichols also ends the film with the same music - actually over the closing credits - but here it becomes an ironic comment on what we've just seen. And what we've just seen is, this time, a quartet of matched and mismatched relationships, a coupling and uncoupling and re-coupling, that are built like a house of cards on the word love.
It's probably a good idea to begin by agreeing that the four actors here - Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Clive Owen and Natalie Portman - are among the most sumptuously beautiful people in the world. Had you and I and two others been onscreen instead, it might have been a lot harder for Mr. Nichols to convey the heat and passion these four can generate. Briefly, "Closer" is the story of Anna (Roberts), an American photographer working in London who takes Avedon-like portraits; Dan (Law), a non-selling novelist who makes his living writing obituaries for a newspaper; Larry (Owen), a dermatologist who is the victim of a practical joke by Dan; and Alice (Portman), an American in London who gets hit by a taxi, looking the wrong way in traffic as Americans are wont to do, but is taken to the hospital by Dan. She's working in a café as a waitress but has been and will be again in the film a stripper in a club.
Love is on everyone's lips, in the screenplay written by Patrick Marber from his own play, but it seems equivalent here to the word passion; that is, everyone speaks of love but it's hard to find any real evidence of it, as opposed to passion, which everyone is hot to express in every way. Larry and Anna are a couple, but they find time to have affairs with Alice and Dan. Dan and Alice are a couple, but - well, you see what I mean. Everyone lies and then tells the truth, usually after intense prodding, about their adulteries - though marriage is only discussed in the context of a possible divorce. No one seems to have much of a business or professional life outside of the endless dance they all are trapped in. Perhaps that's reflective of the four-character play that was the origin of the film. There are fascinating lacunae throughout. Cuts from one scene to the next may mean a moment in time or a gap of months or even years. It's not a problem for the audience; rather, I think it's the filmmakers' way of trying for believability - that is, the knowledge that relationships don't mature, or dissolve, overnight. They need time for either or both to happen.
I said the film is built on a house of cards, but that doesn't mean it's not a brilliant piece of work by Nichols and the actors. There is not an 'actorly' or self-aware moment by anyone in the film. These are brave stars who have been willing to put themselves into Nichols's hands and just let go. And Nichols has refused to use any of the clichéd shooting formulas, of a master shot, reverses and cutaways, in assembling the film. He knows where he wants his camera for each shot, and what he wants it to achieve. Like some of the greatest directors, he seems to edit in the camera. This is a film that reminds us of his brilliant early work, in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "Silkwood."
In a sense "Closer" begins and ends with everyone in his or her proper place, which does not mean a necessarily happy ending for all. It is a beautiful achievement for Nichols, and presents four powerful performances by stars who have allowed themselves to become actors again.