Natalie Portman: Closer
There are a few reasons why I need to write about Natalie Portman. First of all--and I think I've mentioned this before--I'm kind of in love with her. Well, I'm kind of in love with certain characters she has played, most notably Sam from Garden State. She is so cute and compelling and fascinating and quirky in that movie, I simply can't resist her. In interviews, as well, she also comes across as someone I could easily be in love with. But interviews are not necessarily who a person really is, so that's a dangerous game to play. Besides, the world is going to have to change in a myriad of fantastic and magical ways for me to have the opportunity to come to know Natalie Portman well enough to actually fall in love with her.
Thus, I'm kind of in love with her.
The other reason I need to write about her is because she had a fucking amazing 2004. She did both Garden State and Closer, which were two of my very favorite movies from last year. In both films, she was incredible and basically stole the show, dominating every scene she was in. Thinking back on just how fascinating and wonderful she was in both of those movies, I find myself dreading the new Star Wars movie. It is, unfortunately, the next movie that I will see her in and I know that she will be nowhere near as good as she has been and can be. Somehow, George Lucas has this amazing talent for making her boring and mundane, plagued with flat delivery and a complete lack of the sense of wonder that makes her so compelling in other movies. It would be a laudable talent on Lucas's part of it weren't so fucking horrible.
Anyway, let's talk about Closer in this entry, before I get to Garden State in a later entry. I went to see Closer Sunday night at the Kennedy School, which is an old school in Portland that was bought by McMenamins and turned into a hotel/bar/restaurant/movie theater. It's a lovely place and there isn't anything much better than going into a theater, sitting in a big, comfortable old chair and drinking a beer while you watch a great movie on a big screen with a quiet, respectful audience completely free of any children to annoy the hell out of you. I mean, that's the way movies are meant to be seen and I salute McMenamins for providing me with the opportunity to watch a movie (for three bucks, no less!) in such an atmosphere.
The movie was great. I knew it would be, as I had seen it before in one of those crappy, regular theaters back when it was first released. But it was just as good the second time around. The movie is all about character and dialogue, though, so be warned and know what you're getting into if you see it. It's adapted from a play and it very much is . . . a play. It's a movie, yes, but it's completely like a play in the heavy focus on dialogue.
The movie also doesn't pull any punches when it comes to sex. It talks about sex, frequently and explicitly, and it is a joy to behold. It's so nice to go to an American movie and see sex with dealt in such a frank and unflinching manner. And I don't mean with actual sex, as there are basically no sex scenes. Well, there are no visual sex scenes. I mean talking about sex and dealing with the realities of sex in an upfront manner, delving into the emotional consequences and complexities. You don't see much of that in American cinema, so it's a nice change of pace.
But hang on--let's talk about Natalie Portman. She is radiant in this movie. She is the only character, first and foremost, that might be described as likeable. Even in that regard, there are times when you don't know what the hell she is thinking and there are other times when it's hard to feel too sorry for her, but she is generally a sympathetic character and, as a result, is really the main character. The other three characters--played very well by Julia Roberts, Clive Owen and Jude Law--simply don't inspire much sympathy. They make such horrible decisions and act in such a heartless manner, we're left without much of a concern about their well-being. But Natalie Portman's character, Alice, is worth our time. She doesn't always make the smartest decisions and there is no doubt that she cuts herself off from people, but we still feel for her. We want her to be happy, or at the very least to not be shit on by the other characters.
Portman is simply amazing in this role. She is childlike and devious at the same time, alluring and innocent and overtly sexual. The way she smiles--tentatively, hesitantly--is endearing and, at times, almost heartbreaking. She hides herself, and for good reason, yet all we want is for her to be happy. Perhaps she trusts too greatly at certain times and is not trusting enough at other times, but we don't care. When she plaintively cries, "I'm the one who leaves. I'm supposed to leave you. I'm the one who leaves," it is a painful moment. Surely she shouldn't have to endure what she does.
Through it all, Portman is fearless in her acting. She bares herself emotionally and almost completely bares herself physically, as well, in a harsh and brutal scene in a strip club. And yet, even then when she is being devious and manipulative, we care for her character and want the best for Alice. And, indeed, we find out later that she is not being as devious as we might think. Even in her lowest moments in the movie, Portman manages to infuse Alice with a decency that always allows us to root for her.
It's just an incredible performance, one of two in 2004 by Portman that she should be receiving more recognition for. This performance, in particular, is an announcement that she is fully an adult and can take on mature roles with the best of them. Once I get past the inevitable let down that will be Star Wars, I can't wait to see what she does next, to see if she fulfills the promise she shows in Closer. In the meantime, I'm going to think of her as she's seen in the last shot of the movie, which is uplifting, yet tinged with sorrow, incredibly compelling and beautiful.