November 12, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Natalie Portman hunches discreetly in the back of a darkened movie theater watching herself strip. This is a very early screening of Closer, a blue movie in every sense — except, curiously, the dirty one. A star-crossed London love quadrangle from director Mike Nichols and British playwright Patrick Marber, the film contains not a single sex scene. The language is as raw as the feelings behind it, but never egregious. Costar Julia Roberts calls it ”specific” and ”surgical.” Funny, too.

Take this exchange, for instance. Portman’s character, a bold but emotionally furtive waif named Alice, is disrobing in a gentlemen’s club for the ungentlemanly Larry (Clive Owen), a dangerously lovelorn doctor whose wife, Anna (Roberts), has just admitted, in graphic detail, an affair with Alice’s boyfriend Dan (Jude Law). (At this point, you may find a flowchart helpful — the entire piece consists of these interlinked couples’ couplings and uncouplings, sprinkled over a four-year period.)

”Alice,” Larry begs, ”tell me something true.”

”Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off,” Alice zings back. ”But it’s better if you do.”

In the back row of the theater, one of Portman’s companions leans over to whisper some moral support: ”Slut!”

How did four perfectly nice actors get mixed up with a movie like this? Two (printable) words: Mike Nichols. The director had wanted to adapt Marber’s hit play since he read it in 1999, the year it came to New York. Marber (who also directed the Broadway production) wasn’t precisely sure what he wanted to do with his play, although Nichols generously offered to produce a film version, if it came to that. Four years later, Nichols contacted Marber again, and this time the playwright was ready to hand over his baby (and, eventually, make a last-minute change to the ending, at Nichols’ suggestion).

Long obsessed with the volatile, fluid dynamics of mating (see his first film, 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? . . . or The Graduate or Carnal Knowledge or Heartburn or The Birdcage or HBO’s Angels in America, for that matter), Nichols liked what the play had to say about ”the competitive part of love.” ”Which is more important than you would think,” he notes.

On this brisk October day, Nichols is taking a break from rehearsing his next sober investigation into human behavior, the Monty Python stage spectacular Spamalot. (”The fish-slapping number” is coming up, an assistant announces.) ”I think in some ways [Closer] is about how guys can’t seem to lose their need to kill each other, their need to know, Is there another guy, and what do you do with him, and is he as good as me?” says Nichols, who, at 73, is generously and unpretentiously professorial. ”[Whereas women are] kind of bemused. Because they can’t teach the guys the main thing.”

And what is the main thing?

”Calm down, you’ve won. It’s over. You have me. It’s all right now. You can drop all that stuff.” He smiles. ”Somebody said that to me in my life, when I was beside myself because she’d had dinner with her old boyfriend.” (That ”she” would be Diane Sawyer, Nichols’ wife of 16 years.) ”She came back, and I was halfway up the wall, I had all these Valium in me. She said, ‘Calm down, you’ve won, I’m here.’ That’s what a guy can’t quite get into his head. Because the others are always present.”

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