It’s quite possible that Mike Nichols wants his audience never to get involved in romantic relationships again. After mulling terminal illness in the recent television specials Wit and Angels in America, the director has returned to the sometimes equally brutal subject he’s been exploring every few years since his 1966 debut: love and sex, or the ties that scald. Add Closer to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge, and even Primary Colors, and you have enough train wreckage to scare the Kinsey out of casual boot-knockers for good.

Like both Woolf and Carnal Knowledge, Closer is a mesmerizing, zoomed-in meditation on the coupling of four. The film is bookended by the slow-motion stroll of a beauty on a busy city sidewalk: As Damien Rice’s aching “The Blower’s Daughter” plays—“And so it is/The shorter story/No love, no glory/No hero in her sky”—a young former stripper named Alice (Natalie Portman) cuts through the unwashed, commanding the camera’s attention first in London and later in New York. Naturally, she also commands the attention of the men around her, who in the opening scene include Dan (Jude Law), a shabbily dressed obituary writer whose eye-lock with Alice may well be the most thrilling moment of his life. When Alice, apparently either smugly distracted by her effect on the guys or just too damn ethereal to be bothered with tedious matters such as traffic, gets hit by a car, Dan takes the opportunity to be her knight in shining armor.

Thing is, Dan isn’t the lonely heart he appears to be: He’s living with someone when he and Alice spend that afternoon in the hospital. A year or so later, American photographer Anna (Julia Roberts) is taking Dan’s picture for the jacket of his first novel—dedicated to Alice—when artist and subject share an urgent kiss. Anna’s reaction when she finds out Dan is now living with Alice, however, isn’t so friendly—and when Dan responds to her sudden cold shoulder with “But you kissed me!” she replies, “What are you, 12?” By this early stage of the film, you’ll realize that, emotionally, that’s about right: When he can’t get Anna out of his head a few months later—Closer jumps, seamlessly, forward and sometimes back in time—Dan, in a chat room called London Sexanon, poses as Anna while IMing a freaky dermatologist named Larry (Clive Owen), which leads to Larry and the real Anna’s meeting and subsequent relationship.

In his production notes, Nichols comments that when people think about intimate unions, “we remember beginnings and endings and tend to edit out the middles.” The odd thing about Closer is that even though it doesn’t bother with the worn-in, contented stage of these affairs, skipping months and years between first meetings and death-knell problems, it also barely re-creates the thrill of falling in love. Based on the Broadway play by Patrick Marber, a TV veteran who also shaped the screenplay, the film remains highly theatrical, offering one stagy beginning and knee-jerk “I love you” after another. Of course, the dramatis personae are so flawed that even new relationships smack of distress: Attraction, especially in Dan’s case, nearly always comes off as neediness, the promise of the new feeding the ugly, gaping holes in people who, in the film’s psychospeak, think they “don’t deserve happiness.”

So every relationship kicks off with a sinking feeling, even when things could work out nicely. And when they work out not so nicely—well… One situation that Closer brings to especially horrible life is the confession, including all of its messy follow-up talk. With all the shifting loyalties at play here, Nichols gets to present Marber’s variations on this conversation four times, and each is wrenching. Take the George-and-Martha vitriol in the sorry-I’ve-been-cheating scene between Larry and Anna, who’ve married. Both have secrets they suddenly want to reveal the night Larry comes home from a dermatology convention, though Anna’s is much more devastating. The grilling that ensues as the camera follows the couple around their apartment is merciless: Where did you fuck him? How recently? Is he good? Do you go down on him? How does it taste? When Anna, at first weepy and regretful, is finally pushed to hiss, “It tastes like you but sweeter!” Larry responds with “Thanks for your honesty. Now fuck off and die.”

The film’s four big names are quite effective as morally bankrupt but still sympathetic characters. If there is a weak link, it’s Portman, but only because she looks like a preteen next to the others and is unsurprising—which simply means that she’s as subtle, magnetic, and heartbreaking as she was playing the romantic lead in Garden State. Everyone else, meanwhile, brings a little something different to the table: Law’s performance as a compulsive working-class philanderer is much more nuanced, raw, and ultimately believable than his turn in a nearly identical role in Alfie. Roberts sheds her sassy America’s-sweetheart demeanor to play the twice-divorced Anna as a woman who isn’t quite jaded enough not to have a serious grass-is-always-greener complex. Owen, far from looking the suave heartthrob of King Arthur or Croupier, wears Larry’s insecurity and desperate unhappiness with slightly deluded goofiness, best shown when he first meets Anna and cheerily, unabashedly describes the pathetic cyberencounter he thought they had the previous day.

Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt and production designer Tim Hatley create a London that, like Closer’s central relationships, alternates between lived-in and cold: The cramped apartments, offices, and gray-day commutes that make up the men’s lives contrast with the spectacular art galleries, spacious lofts, and slick strip clubs the women tend to occupy. The characters are as comfortable inhabiting the opposing worlds as they are with their fluid ethics: The most obvious behavior pattern in Marber’s script (besides cowardice, of course) is mewling about how you can’t help but tell the truth—though only after extended periods of betrayal.

At the end of all the crossing, double-crossing, and expert unpacking of a caseload of issues, you’ll probably find these people dreadful. But anyone who doesn’t see a little bit of him- or herself in the wickedly honest portrayals has got to be a saint. And whatever your malfunction, Dr. Larry has you diagnosed: As he points out in one particularly Nicholsesque metaphor, the human heart resembles nothing so much as a fist covered in blood.CP