Sexual Attraction is Not Love: A Critique of the Movie “Closer”
Posted by Tony Listi on June 9, 2008
If you have not seen Closer, you might want to familiarize yourself with it here (will spoil the movie) or just skip this post. The style of story-telling is very clever and imaginative. The characters are powerfully portrayed by each actor. But it is the substance of the film that I am most interested in.
This movie is about 4 messed up people who cheat on each other and have no idea what love really is. It is a reflection of how dysfunctional and hyper-sexualized Western societies have become in their relationships. It is the tragic and perverse culmination of so-called sexual liberation. It is hard to find a theme or moral that is not negative in formulation (e.g. “Don’t do this!”).
Dan, Alice, Anna, and Larry are all weak, broken people. Each has their own unique faults, but all of them fail to realize what love really is. The men measure their relationships and “love” based on mere sexual attraction or in terms of power. Alice seems unable to love herself and who she is, and so she lies to herself and Dan from the very beginning. Anna is too weak to rebuff the advances of Dan and her own attraction to him, a married man. Both women prostitute themselves and thus degrade themselves. None of the characters seems to realize that love is not sexual attraction, not something that one feels. Love goes beyond mere feeling that intensifies and fades away (perhaps in cycles) with time. Love between men and women is a permanent, exclusive commitment to sacrifice for and serve one another till the death of one spouse. It is a relationship that is to be strengthened and made sacred before the eyes of God through the institution of marriage. How can love be more than bestial urges, mere irrational biochemistry, without an anchor in the Transcendent?
One line of the movie (paraphrased) stands out among others as a potential takeaway message: “Without the truth, we are nothing more than animals.” True enough. And yet Larry, the doctor character played by Clive Owen, is scrupulously honest with others throughout the film, as far as I can tell. But he behaves like a sex-crazed, vengeful animal just like the other three. He is vain and malicious. For all his honesty, he is a monster. So if the message of the movie is merely “tell the truth,” that merely begs the question: what is the truth that we should tell? How can we be honest with each other when we don’t know what the truth is?
Of course, the previous question is not quite the best interpretation either. Each of the characters knew it was wrong to cheat on their spouse. Each should have plainly seen how their choices, actions, and approach to sex and love were destroying their lives. Guilt was no mere “social construction” for the four. The real question is this: how can we be honest with one another when we aren’t honest with ourselves, when we don’t heed the moral truths written on our very hearts that are confirmed by human experience and history?
It has been said that art is a reflection of life (among other things); Closer, sadly, probably is a reflection of real life in many Western cities, especially those which embrace modern liberalism. It is gritty, sexual realism of a sort. Because the movie accurately portrays the consequences of breaking moral laws, especially with regard to sex and marital love, I cannot help but like the movie for its honesty.
But as I’ve suggested above, honesty is not enough. There was no closure to Closer. There was no offer of a better alternative to the moral chaos and misery of these characters. There was no offer of hope. Marriage is treated as a superfluous social convention rather than as something made holy and seriously contemplated. The film is devoid of any reference to the Divine, which points the way to real Love. But perhaps one cannot expect too much of one movie. The detailed intensity of the havoc of sin in the movie (especially of a sexual nature, which is often hard to demonstrate abstractly) may be valuable enough to those who already know what the alternative is or those who are spurred to search for a meaningful alternative.
But I can’t help but think that many people are going to accept the moral chaos at face value as “a fact of life” and search no deeper. Some will conclude there is no truth, no morality, no exit. Some will watch the movie and embrace its nihilism, its poetic meaninglessness. They will embrace it as a “feel good” movie because the harsh reality was “beautifully” presented. They will take hollow comfort in the beauty of tragedy without seeking a better escape. That is what I fear. That is what I object to.
Yes, art can be an honest reflection of life but it can do better than mere honesty. Art can be a reflection of Truth. It can be a reflection of moral truths, of ideals that may never exist in full in this world but which we should constantly aim towards nevertheless because the alternative is the observable fate of Dan, Alice, Anna, and Larry. Art can be a reflection of Purpose, of meaning to our lives because we embrace certain truths. Art can be a reflection of Faith, of trust and submission to something higher than ourselves, higher than the tragedy of fallen humanity. Even the ancient pagan Greeks and Romans recognized this higher plane of art. Ultimately, if art is not grounded in Truth, Purpose, and Faith, it merely intensifies the maelstrom of confusion, chaos, misery, and hopelessness.