Looking at something beautiful is like whispering the unspeakable into a tree: the mere act of it is ripe with pleasure, fulfilling on some level an unconscious need for self-indulgence. The goal is never to make eye contact, or to be heard; it is gesture for gesture’s sake, both in consumption and in release. And in looking, ours is a culture that fetishizes what we see—we fantasize in visualizations, take in beauty with our eyes, penetrate with our gaze. We came, we saw, we devoured. We never dreamed that they would look back.
This is how Mike Nichols’ Closer opens—with the characters we will come to know as Dan and Alice steadily eye-fucking each other as they converge at a busy intersection, two strangers drawn to each other in an undulating current of passersby. Their eye contact is only broken when Alice, distracted by Dan’s baby blues, walks into the path of a taxi and crumbles onto the street. He rushes to her side. When she comes to, she looks him straight in the eye, and delivers the world’s most intimate, flirtatious first words: “Hello, stranger.”
Closer is a film about eye-fucking beautiful strangers—just take a look at the poster—or, to break it down into its parts, a film about strangers, and beauty, and looking, and fucking. There is no need to chart out the trajectory between each point; this is a landscape we are all too familiar with. Our characters, four strangers named Alice, Dan, Larry and Anna (Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Clive Owen and Julia Roberts) meet and become entangled in one another, four pulsing dots in a shifting love rectangle. They look until they catch another person’s eye—and then they play.
And in the game of seduction, these characters are all skilled players: they fall in love fast and fall out of love even faster, giving them just enough time to lie, cheat, and manipulate each other with a chilling level of indifference and contempt. When Dan leaves Alice for Anna, he tries to absolve himself of any responsibility: “I fell in love with her, Alice.” Her response is biting: “Oh, as if you had no choice? There’s a moment, there’s always a moment. ‘I can do this, I can give into this, or I can resist it.’” Well, in a movie called Closer , resistance doesn’t factor into the physical equation. Our characters only disband after they’ve collided into each other and made everyone else collateral damage. As if to say, and so it is. These are the rules and ruins of desire. Those who look don’t get to touch, and those who touch are the ones who hurt.
Put your finger on any scene in Closer, and there’s a chance you’re punctuating the sightlines between two characters. The spaces between them are deliberately intimate; the conversations even more so. They develop a cruel rapport with each other by gazing at each other, into each other, and through each other. The carnal encounters, although pivotal to the narrative, are uninteresting; the sex in this movie happens in the ellipses. What we see is what they see: the charm, the beauty, the seduction—and then the aftermath.
In one such scene, Alice asks Dan, who’s a writer, to describe her with an euphemism. She takes off his glasses as she does so, to get a better look, or maybe to be the one seeing clearly. Disarming, he replies. (They’re an articulate bunch, these four; always saying the right things to hook the other characters and the audience alike.) And he couldn’t be more right. She’s disarming because she’s beautiful to look at, of course, but also literally—because she’s the one in control.
In another scene, Anna (a photographer hired to shoot Dan’s headshot for a book, which is how she enters the story), is taking a photograph of Alice for a series called Strangers. Having been at her studio earlier, Dan has already successfully seduced Anna, and Alice is aware that something’s going on. When Anna tries to apologize to her, Alice—with tears rolling down her face—cuts her short: “Just take my picture.” The resulting photograph is sad, but a sadness masked by its intrigue; exactly as she intended. Later, when asked what she thinks of her own photograph: “It’s a lie.” Her tone is biting. “A bunch of sad strangers, photographed beautifully.”
In addition to being strikingly beautiful, Alice is, in her profession, a stripper: all too well-acquainted with the power dynamics of the gaze. She is always looking, and constantly aware of being looked at. Hello, stranger. If seeing is knowing, and knowledge is power, then she knows it is in her interest to control the look. Because once it’s broken by action, whether a kiss or a fuck, it is too late. Looking is innocuous, safe; gestures carry with them the weight of truth.
I can’t take my eyes off of you, Damien Rice sings throughout the movie, which could be construed as a compliment, but has all of the tones of a plea. His song, “The Blower’s Daughter,” bookends the movie, washing over everything with a coat of melancholy. In the opening scenes, it flatters: Dan and Alice can’t take their eyes off each other. In the closing scene, it condemns—look what happens when I do. The pupil in denial. Of course, what we don’t know at the beginning is that it was a lament all along: when Rice sings these words for the last time, his voice drops below a whisper, and adds: … ‘til I find somebody new.
The power of the gaze as an optical illusion for the truth is something director Mike Nichols is hyper-aware of, and deftly manipulates. Throughout Closer, we make eye contact with different characters, through mirrors, through cameras, through watching them watch others. The truth is always the currency, but rarely do they get what they give—after all, they are most honest when it comes to admitting their deceptions. Lies beget more lies, even if you’re telling the truth about lying. In a seminal scene where Larry finds Alice working at a strip club, he is desperate for her to give him something real, a token of intimacy. “Tell me something true,” he insists. She replies, “Lying’s the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off—but it’s better if you do.” He doesn’t believe her, even though the truth is right in front of his eyes. Tunnel vision can be blinding, too.
Discerning between a desire to see the truth and seeing the truth of our desires is perhaps the central tension in Closer . After all, seeing is believing, or so the saying goes—but no one talks about how seeing is deceiving, too. “Seeing the truth” is the greatest lie we tell ourselves, the same hubristic logic we employ when we think we see something true in the portrait of a stranger. How could we know anything beyond what they put forth to the surface? We look for lies and we look for answers, but really, we look for desire—to see what we want to see. Look no further than the film’s tagline: If you believe in love at first sight, you never stop looking.