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Coupling, uncoupling, recoupling


Given his track record, it seems entirely appropriate that Mike Nichols should direct the film adaptation of Patrick Marber's play Closer. He began his career as an actor --- and his films suggest that he works sensitively with actors --- and maintains a close relationship with the theater both as director and producer.

Although he has made a number of movies, many of them well received by both critics and audiences, several, like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Carnal Knowledge, and Biloxi Blues, either develop from plays or depend upon a good deal of theatrical, as opposed to cinematic, technique for their success.

Plays adapted to the screen, no matter their quality, usually betray their origin by a certain staginess in narrative, structure, and even their performances. In Closer Nichols manages the unusual feat of exploiting the restrictions of his source, rather than allowing them to freeze the action into a kind of theatrical stasis.

The movie rarely exhibits the familiar artificial "opening up" through unnecessary movement to irrelevant locations, the need for interesting backgrounds to offset a narrow focus, or the addition of extraneous characters to populate a limited cast, but throughout generally seems satisfyingly cinematic.

The film confronts the tense and shifting connections among four people, two Englishmen and two American women, who form and reform into couples. All the characters initially meet by chance, but create lasting and profound relationships that in the usual manner of both life and art tend to cause the participants a good deal more suffering than happiness.

The series of encounters among the couples provides the structure of the movie. Time passes and life goes on in the spaces between those scenes, rather like the action that takes place between the still frames of a visual narrative like a comic strip.

Two handsome young people, Dan (Jude Law), an aspiring novelist, and Alice (Natalie Portman), who describes herself as a waif, make eye contact on a crowded London street, where her encounter with English traffic brings them together. After that sequence, the movie shows Dan posing for Anna (Julia Roberts), a photographer taking his picture for the jacket of his book. Their conversation reveals that some time has passed since the opening sequence, demonstrating the movie's characteristic narrative method, which ignores the chronology between the spaces of essential action and concentrates on moments of emotional connection.

Dan and Anna immediately find themselves attracted to each other, reveal something about themselves, indulge in some verbal sparring, and fall into a passionate embrace. When Alice, who now lives with Dan, comes to meet him, she senses what's happened, and her reaction provides Anna with the chance to photograph her for her exhibit. Later, in a peculiarly contemporary manner that blends the vulgarly comical and the simply ugly, Dan acts as an unwitting Cupid, accidentally bringing Anna and Larry (Clive Owen), a dermatologist, together.

Again jumping over the everyday lives of its people and without ever showing them together for any extended time, the narrative reveals that Dan and Anna conduct a love affair, which resumes even after Larry and Anna have married (something else revealed only in conversation).

Angry, guilty, emotionally devastated, both couples break up. Alice returns to work as a stripper in a nightclub, where in another accidental encounter, Larry stumbles in and hires her for a private dance, an excuse for a searing, painful sexual conversation.

The picture proceeds through a number of other such episodes, each an encounter between two people in all the possible combinations of the four. Their conversations revolve almost entirely around their sexual relationships, masochistically detailing intimacies in the most graphic manner and agonizingly discussing the emotional betrayals. When the divided couples resume something like a previous pattern, even their recombinations create a complicated and ambiguous result.

In its series of sequences of only two characters interacting, Closer betrays its origins, but those two-shots and tight closeups suit both the overall structure and the fierce emotion of the work. The method intensifies the powerful passion, the pain, even the sheer nastiness of the connections and conversations, so the film appears as a series of terrifically strong moments, a kind of affective impressionism translated from stage to screen.

The actors mostly comport themselves according to the demands of script and character. Although Jude Law's pretty face appears in just about every movie this season, here he seems at least a bit less bland and smooth, perhaps because he always needs a shave. Clive Owen works most successfully in his more negative moments, with a real talent for the foul and abrasive.

Julia Roberts provides the most pleasant surprise of the film, suggesting complexity in her silences, allowing her lovely, unusual features to express a great deal more than she speaks, showing better than anyone else in Closer the sadness and suffering that love creates.

Closer (R), starring Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Clive Owen; based on the play by Patrick Marber; screenplay by Patrick Marber; directed by Mike Nichols. Pittsford Plaza Cinema, Regal Henrietta