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Love on the rocks

A bumper crop of adult-themed films tear at the fabric of relationships and marriage

In contrast to the last few years on screen, a period which often seemed to survey the goings-on in Middle Earth at the expense of everyday men and women, movies in 2004 bravely looked at this world and the way couples come apart and recombine within it.

From “The Door in the Floor” to “Being Julia,” “Before Sunset” to “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” the cinematic air was thick with adultery and the after-effects of love and lust.

The tone to some extent was set by “Closer,” the Mike Nichols film that gets very close indeed to the fractured and often fractious geometry of four people: two British men (played by Jude Law and Clive Owen) and the female American expatriates (Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman) with whom the men love and leave and sometimes try to love again.

Based on a 1997 London play by Patrick Marber (subsequently seen on Broadway in 1999, directed by the author), the $27 million “Closer” harked back to such earlier Nichols-helmed chronicles of domestic discord as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Carnal Knowledge,” while existing very much in the here and now in a degree of candor that would not have been permissible back then. (Owen and Roberts in particular say things that have been all but unsayable onscreen.)

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“I challenge anyone who watches that piece not to regularly identify strongly with some of the more horrific scenes,” says Owen, the English thesp who has the distinction of being the one member of Nichols’s screen cast who also appeared in the play in London, albeit in the role played by Law on screen. “Most people will go, ‘Uh, I’ve been in that scene or in a version of that scene’ ” — which, in turn, may bring audiences closer to the material than they might want to get.

Nichols says he was attracted to Marber’s play, which he first saw on Broadway, by the way it gets “at those things,” he says, “which are at the very heart of being human: sexual desire and the need to win, and the way in which there’s nothing of the moment or that goes in or out of fashion about those (themes).”

Such issues, the helmer says, may “change their colors but they’re always the same shape: they’re always right at the center of men and women.”

Other smaller films shone a similarly fresh, often fierce light on domestic discourse, from the $2.7 million “Before Sunset” to John Curran’s $3 million “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” the latter of which follows a somewhat “Closer”-esque course in charting the travails of two couples: Laura Dern and Mark Ruffalo, Naomi Watts and Peter Krause.

“It’s flattering to be talked about in the same sentence” as Mike Nichols, says “We Don’t Live Here” helmer John Curran, who says he has long had an interest in “films that deal specifically with the dynamics of relationships.”

But if “Closer,” in Nichols’ view, “is about beginnings and endings: that’s why it leaves out the middles,” Curran speaks of an interest in what he calls “the crisis and making each moment reflective of the crisis: let’s lump together all the bad times and still feel as if it’s evolving through this bad summer in the characters’ lives.” (And whereas Nichols was working from a play, Curran’s film is based on two novellas by Andre Dubus.)

Like Nichols, Curran speaks of not being overly concerned with making his adulterers “sympathetic,” at least not if that sympathy sacrifices the integrity that makes truthful storytelling stand apart.

“People in a crisis aren’t that attractive,” says Curran. “When people are in a crisis, they’re narcissistic and self-absorbed. Hopefully, you see yourself in there and imagine them in happier times and beyond this and getting through it and what they could be.”

Tod Williams, director of the $8 million John Irving adaptation “The Door in the Floor,” takes umbrage, he says, when he hears “people saying, as they keep doing, that (my) film is negative.

“I just don’t understand what world people think they live in where they don’t treat each other like shit,” he laughs over the from San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he is prepping a new film version of “To Have and Have Not”: “Or maybe all my friends are assholes.”

The point, says Williams, is that films like his and “Closer” “leave room for the audience to bring some creativity,” which in the case of “Door in the Floor” means imagining a relationship between spouses Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger that has all but ended by the time we encounter them.

“The film is all about this marriage, except that essentially Jeff and Kim never get together, or they do only in three moments with next to no dialogue. So I was making essentially two different movies about a marriage.” The result relies on an audience to put together the pieces as those in relationships have to do.

If adultery is these movies’ constant animus, “Before Sunset” gets at the subject in what might be called embryonic form — in a daylong meeting between Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) leading up to a scene that may or may not bring these onetime fleeting lovers once again to bed.

In aim in this sequel to the 1995 movie “Before Sunrise,” says Delpy by telephone from Paris, “was to try to capture something when it’s not yet a drama,” in contrast to the crushing after-effects chronicled, say, in “Door in the Floor” and “Closer.”

“In the film, there’s nothing,” notes Delpy. “Jesse is cheating on no one; he hasn’t kissed or done anything. We wanted to capture that moment maybe before” — that time when, in other words, the lull precedes the all-too-potential storm.

Nonetheless, there’s scarcely a more sensitive, smarter set of films about relationships, or the prospects for one, than the “Sunrise”/”Sunset” diptych, the second of which was shot in 15 days.

“We wanted to try to capture something when it’s not yet a drama, to take some moments which are perhaps not super-dramatic at first, since I thought it would be more interesting to capture that.” (Both actors worked on the screenplay with director Richard Linklater.)

The result is to charge life’s minutiae — a look, a smile, a silence — with immense resonance so as, says Delpy, “to work on capturing something really true.”

Where, then, does this leave 2004’s defining diva, the English thespian grande dame, Julia Lambert, played by Annette Bening in “Being Julia,” who has a husband (Jeremy Irons), an aristocratic lover (Bruce Greenwood), and a hunky boy toy (Shaun Evans)?

For all that Ronald Harwood’s adaptation of Somerset Maugham would seem centered on relationships, the film’s most abiding dissection lies in Julia’s compact with herself.

“The major subject of the film is this actress’ fight against ageing and to find herself behind the mask,” says director Istvan Szabo, “so the relationship problem is a secondary one.”

Or perhaps, as Szabo suggests, you can’t sort out your relationship with others until you’ve confronted the one you have with yourself. “The major problem of the film is how somebody who lives behind masks is to find herself and to enjoy life as it is.”

Only once that is achieved can she embark on being Julia and on entering the human fray — however painful — that movies during 2004 seemed to find anew.