Parlor Dialogue – Is there any love in the film Closer?

Follows is a Dialogue on the movie Closer.  Based at first on talking, this writing was built from exchanges between me, your Lookout, and fearless Parlor editor Kathleen Gyurkey, who brought the film to the Salon’s attention. 
To repeat my previous Salon caveat, all this will make more sense if you’ve watched the film.

A Dialogue on Closer

Closer, 2004.  Directed by Mike Nichols, written by Patric Marber from his stage play.  Characters:  Anna (Julia Roberts), Dan (Jude Law), Alice/Jane (Natalie Portman), Larry (Clive Owen).

Kathleen G:  Hey, say, on the Nature of Love… have you by any chance seen Closer?  I watched it the other night.  I’d have to say it’s more about the misconceptions of love than the nature of love, more to do with male weaknesses influencing what love is supposed to be.

IMDB still from Closer

The story begins with the song “Can’t take my eyes off of you.” This is the original fallacy in love, the starting place from which everything can go wrong.  Not to dismiss chemistry, which is different, but to put “fascination” into a box where we can recognize it for what it is: not love, but a place from which one explores the possibility of love. Those who treat “The Thunderbolt” as a definitive event that transforms the remainder of their lives operate from a false premise: that Love is an impression.

Annie G:  I agree.  And we can’t take a look at this lovething without addressing desire, male desire, and the aspect of it where “fascination” is the ignition point. (Part of what Femcrit calls the gaze, which for my two bits is much about capture.)  This would be linked, I’d think, to the sexual impulse as we’ve come to know it, where the imprisoning weight of this “fascination” tries to claim and possess and therefore put (safely) in a frame.  Which is what Dan does by writing Alice/Jane into a book. 

This so often kills the possible that love could open out into.  Is it a fear of open space, emotionally speaking, that seals the deal, makes male love so much about capture?  Is this capturing in itself a kind of hedge against the possible by giving in to our need to control, to stay safe in an endless repeat of the known?  So indulging in the “thunderbolt” becomes the default emotion, where all other possibilities are struck moot.  Can’t seed in the burnt soil.

KG:  One thing I think jumps out: we need to, finally, move past these “instinctual attraction” patterns that limit relationships and condemn them to be repeated over and over with no forward progress.  Something we could bring forward more would be how women’s “instinctual responses” perpetrate the notion that they are objects and “belong to” certain men.

For example, what about Alice’s “real” identity?  My feeling is that the women in this narrative are reacting to the classic male attraction to them.  Jane, at the start, doesn’t want Dan to be partnering with who she “really” is – meaning a stripper.  So she just instinctively sets up a fresh start in the new identity of Alice (in this new place she has chosen) that will be worthy of his fascination, and from there maybe even his commitment to her.  She also gets a new “career” – waitressing – and in general makes herself over for him so that she will not disappoint him. (And, of course, will no longer be available to other men.)  So, general idea is that, yes, it’s all about impressions, and she wants to start with one that is not about the age-old transaction: sexual fascination for money.  

AG:  Remember that Dan’s book, the cover for which he’s being photographed by Anna, is based on Alice’s life as a stripper.  So that the telling of Alice’s life is what makes Dan’s career as a lit-star.  So beside his appropriation of her life for his benefit, it is also how Dan meets Anna, which results in Alice/Jane’s great unhappiness.  

Anna makes comments about this use by Dan of Alice’s life, asks him what Alice thinks about Dan “stealing” her life, etc. So at some point rather early Alice must have revealed the stripper aspect of herself to Dan.

KG:  Well, yes, Alice revealed that she had been a stripper – but she also re-made herself so that she could be “his” girl, a prize worth having and not something that every guy can have for a price.  THEN she made her old life available to him – a gift – as the substance of his book, effectively GIVING HERSELF AWAY rather than BEING STOLEN.  Except that the obverse of her giving was his taking, which is why Anna saw it as theft.

AG:  This is an at core difference between the women.  Alice gives away, Anna expects to be taken.  And what about that bit of reveal pasted on the end, of Alice not being Alice at all, but Jane?  This initially felt to me like a narrative trick meant more to sell the story (to other smart men), but now it feels as if there’s meaning to it, that there’s something there. 

KG: In the end, as Jane, disillusioned with “love” as defined by her handler, Dan, Alice returns, presumably, to a role where she is the one in control. 

AG:  Returns to the role of a stripper you mean?  I’m fascinated by this conception of strippers as being where the woman is “in control.”  Like trying to bag fire.

KG:  Having failed at becoming a partner as she understood it, Alice will now once again buy into the transactional nature of male-female, wherein for her favors she is at least rewarded with money.  The overall result is regression and retreat, not progress, in male/female relations.

AG:  Do you think because this woman, Alice/Jane “lied” about her name, it justifies how she was treated in the story?  Being dumped, being second best to Anna?  And also, is the screenwriter cynically saying we all (especially women?) lie about who we are, play roles, so the idea of genuine engagement with one another through love is, ultimately, impossible? 

KG:  Hmmm.  I certainly never thought of that.  I assumed that Jane had just arrived in London, embarking on some form of a new life when her encounter opened up a different possibility: becoming “his girl” and spontaneously renaming herself.  Was she lying about who she “really” was, or was she trying to become who she really was, or wanted to be – a partner in a relationship?  The disillusionment in learning that she did not “love” Dan, in view of the fact that his “love” for her was all about possession and control, led to her reversion to Jane. But her effort to be Alice was an honest one, not a lie.  It’s just that she was transforming and he was not.  Per the Jane Campion movies’ themes of women as bodies, only, we have this Jane eschewing that in her attempt to fuse with Dan.  A re-do that assumes he wants to relate to her as a person, not a body – and of course she is mistaken: he picks another women to whom he is “attracted” even while Alice offers the hard-working, committed non-stripper self as partner for him. 

AG:  So what of Anna’s participation in it all, her reaction to classic male attraction?

KG:  One thing is certain: she exemplifies, in her own way, the complicity of women with the male approach to love, meaning largely a visual impression, backed by a recognition of male dominance.  When Anna first meets Dan, hardly hesitating, she obeys his command to “come here.” (In your parlance, above, he has fixed his “gaze” on her, and being the recipient of that gaze is experienced as this high compliment, not to be ignored.)  She kisses him back based upon the commanding nature of his attraction, nothing more.  Later, when she is “set up” by Dan’s prank, again she is won by Larry’s near-first words to her, “You are beautiful” (It’s the gaze).  A relationship is born based on this ancient come-on.  They are a couple based upon it; Larry would never have even acknowledged her had she not fit the description.  Her chance to change the pattern might have been to not respond – but that is not Anna.

So then, why does Dan “win” her once again?  I think it’s because Anna is made to feel like the greater prize. (Would this be competition of a sort between the females?)  So in a mirror-like way, it is conquest, possession and control that masquerades so convincingly as love.

Anna “gets” the guy, Larry, in the form of Marriage.  I am unclear as to whether anything has changed in him that would suggest that love can progress.  What does his ambiguity in reporting to Dan on whether he had fucked Alice tell us about him?  Likely, he wants to remain on all fronts the victor over Dan.  (He “got” them both, Alice and Anna, meaning he also “got” Dan – a total victory).  Indications are that Larry has not learned anything from all this getting/having. But the question is left open in the end, don’t you think?  Has he learned, at least, that he can’t have them all?

AG:  I was so ready to stop being in the presence of Larry by the end of this story, I can only say that my feeling is his character learned nothing from rubbing shoulders with the others.  His careening pursuit of possession and one-up-manship changed only in that it increased in speed and intensity throughout.  Yikes.…

To follow up on this “competition of sorts between the females,”  I think there is in this story, laid out in the open almost as accepted fact and yet invisible, that yes, Anna could take both men if she wanted, which she does, without much thought to Alice/Jane.  We spend little time on any self questioning, if any, Anna might have on the emotional consequences of her actions on Alice/Jane.  Because Anna, merely by being, is blessed with that coveted female role of the one desired by all men.  But by nature of what?  Her self possessed beauty, of course.  But otherwise any doubt on Anna’s part of of the reasons for her eminence in the male domain is left unexplored by her or this story and I found myself becoming repulsed by her (or was it the constant desire of the men for her that fatigued me?) as the story went on; her oblivious acceptance, unanalyzed, of being the privileged get that the men fought over.  Why should she question it, I guess.  It’s so confirming, being the one everyone wants.

KG: It’s intriguing to realize that Anna, not because of venality or competitiveness or jealousy/possessiveness or anything obvious like that, but because of her complicity in the male selection agenda, was actually Alice’s nemesis/enemy; that Anna may be the “villain” female in this narrative, the one who just wants to keep doing the dance, being the prize, turning toward the most motivated, or possibly most “successful” or perhaps most demanding or the most cunning of the males.  So she might be the antithesis of what Alice sought to do – form a “closer” bond with the male – and she, or what she represents, in the end is the reason for Alice’s failure to form a real partnership, for her retreat back to selling herself.

AG: Yes, Anna’s a force of subversion!  And so traditionally female in that the “competition” is indirect, unstated, essentially unrecognized as such.

KG:  And, to further advance the theory that she was unconsciously the one who brought down Alice’s effort at moving closer to partnership with Dan, let us remember that, though she believed she was “not a thief,” she, as much as Dan, used Alice/Jane, put her in a frame, objectified her for basically commercial purposes in her photographic exhibition, then capitulated when Dan couldn’t struggle against his “love” for her and remain true to Alice.

AG:  Which is to say, they all used Alice/Jane, used her offering of her eros/life force in their treatment of her:  Dan in his book;  Larry when he visits her as a stripper (her most obvious “objectification”);  and Anna, both in her framing Alice in that huge photograph and, as you point out, allowing Alice’s heart to be broken as a “side effect,” when she manages to overlook Alice’s existence in the triangle with Dan.

Another idea that clicked for me was how this “love story,” which on the surface was between the men and the women even as they traded around, became, as the plot progressed, more and more about Larry getting back at Dan.  In fact this revenge energy between the men took over the story making it not about the “love” of the women at all.  A trajectory I recognize often in the established narratives of men.

KG: Yes, though I don’t see it as revenge so much as competition.  Which ties in with the “stuck in evolutionary patterns” theme. Their competition really begins with Anna’s rejection of Dan after she learns he’s already “taken” by Alice/Jane (and Anna’s no thief).  In juvenile-prank reaction against her rejection, Dan sets up a scenario that COULD result in Anna suffering an embarrassment because of his prank at the aquarium. When the unintended consequence is that Larry gets the girl who rejected Dan, the competition is on: now Dan HAS to have her.  Of course, he thinks it’s love that drives this acquisitive need, and he thinks he’s helpless before it, thus not really guilty of betraying Alice; after all, “love” must be obeyed. But it’s so much about the male one-upsmanship.

AG:  This “helplessness” before love lets him off the hook for everything!  What an ancient, deep, tangledness.  The question remains, do we, to use an AA term, enable the men with our desire to be for them what they think they want us to be?

KG:  We women do give the men whatever we have to, to make them stay with us.  So yes, of course we are enablers, as this has been the long history of sexual attraction: become what the male desires.  It is the basis of most advertising.  A tough pattern to break, for, as with so many cases of “early adopters,” the women who step out to break the pattern (by letting hair grow on their legs, let’s say) will find the men passing them over. The break in the pattern requires that the MEN break the pattern, too. The two men in Closer, obviously, were not so motivated; they were stuck in their evolutionary patterns.  And, as you have noted, so much of their claiming of beautiful/desirable women is on one level a competition with other men to possess the most desirable female.  It’s the clash of antlers, somehow.  And competition is another thing built into the DNA.

AG:  Then the men go on, after being enabled and expect/project that pattern with the next woman, presumably with the rut deepening with each subsequent woman.  And perhaps more importantly, the man misses, and consequently doesn’t allow in the woman either, which is to say neither in each other, the opportunity for spiritual/emotional growth.  Which is an abdication of our work to do here.  We earthly beings.

KG:  Of course, the habit of being led by visual/visceral “impressions” has already had its transformative role: we can’t forget the evolutionary underpinnings of “love” being genetic attractions that perpetuate the species by selection of the best (physical) attributes available to any individual. Thus the legitimacy of the “can’t take my eyes off of you” opening lines.

But, the players in this story do miss the real current of what love is, its opportunity for mutually pursued spiritual growth, its potential as THE transformative force available to us which I, too, have often thought is the true nature of love and partnership.  Thus, Closer, as I remember thinking at the beginning of our little dialogue, is really about the antithesis, or the impediments to discovering the nature of love.  

AG:  Yes, this is the theme I think.  So there we have it!

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