‘Close’ Review: A beautifully understated Belgian buddy story
SPOILER ALERT: The penultimate paragraph of this review contains spoilers.
Few of us are blessed with a friendship as intimate and effortless as the one shared by 13-year-old Belgian boys Leo (Eden Dambrine) and Remi (Gustav De Waele) in “Close.” This connection, and the responsibility that comes with it, is at the heart of Lukas Dhont’s second feature, so subtle and sensitive in the first half, so terribly false in its tragic twist. This beautifully evocative film, which comes from an openly queer director, offers as pure a portrayal of innocent and harmless homosexual affection as we have ever encountered in cinema. And then it becomes something incredibly, unpleasantly different.
“Close” marks an auspicious return to the Cannes Film Festival for Dhont, whose debut film, winner of the 2018 Camera d’Or, “Girl,” was both ahead and behind the cultural conversation about young people. trans. This remarkable debut film dramatized the journey of an eager teenager wanting to become a ballerina, but chose a cisgender boy to tell the story, winning directing and acting awards around the world, and rebuffed by the community. trans in the United States. Among the objections raised by GLAAD and other critics was to a climactic scene in which the trans girl endangers her life (and future sex reassignment surgery) by severing her penis – a dramatic shot that sends a potentially dangerous message to an impressionable audience who could identify with the main character.
“Close” presents a version of the same problem, but we’ll get to that later. First, it’s worth celebrating the first 45 minutes of the film, which will resonate deeply with anyone, gay or straight, who has ever found themselves adapting their behavior to suit the homophobia of others. We meet lifelong best friends, Leo and Remi, playing together in a makeshift fort a stone’s throw from fields of blooming dahlias – an incredibly specific and incredibly beautiful profession for Leo’s family that would surely make Terrence Malick envious (his characters could spin for hours among the flowers).
Rarely separated, Léo and Rémi seem linked by the hip. Even their nights are spent sleeping at each other’s house, members entwined. Their parents treat the two children as their own (Léa Drucker and Emilie Dequenne play the respective mothers of Léo and Rémi, and both are great). As in “Girl” – which puts the audience in the shoes of its protagonist – Dhont and co-writer Angelo Tijssens present scenes of observation of daily life, revealing character through behavior rather than explanatory dialogue. Much of their technique is subtext, which relies on us to play detective. And yet, deprived of certain clues, audiences will construct whatever idea they want of these two boys in their heads, filling in the blanks with a combination of lived experience and personal bias. The film almost demands it, forcing us to project our assumptions onto the characters.
Are Léo and Rémi homosexual? Maybe one of them is, but not the other? (These are not trivial questions, even if the film stubbornly refuses to answer them.) In the real world, by the age of 13, many boys have already had their first sexual experiences with neighbors, cousins or classmates, even predatory adults in their circle – and here I’m not just talking about gay boys but all young men, no matter who or what they end up liking. It probably wouldn’t be appropriate for “Close” to dramatize such a dynamic between two minors, but it would go a long way to answering the movie’s million dollar question.
On the first day of a new school term, surrounded by a group of unfamiliar students, the boys huddle together in class and at recess (as the siblings did in the equally insightful “Playground” by Laura Wandel). In the cafeteria, a surprisingly daring girl asks them the question: “Are you together?” and Leo tenses up, explaining that they’re just “close,” like brothers.
It’s a life-changing moment for Leo and Remi, though neither fully realizes it at the time. Like Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge, all innocence falls. To be clear: these two haven’t done anything wrong (and even if they practiced kama sutra in their spare time, instead of just blowing each other’s ears, it wouldn’t be anyone’s business but the their). But they have just experienced a key burst of heteronormative socialization. They were told that their friendship was not normaland nobody wants to be different in college. And so a wedge is introduced into their friendship.
Suddenly embarrassed, Leo begins to behave differently. When Rémi touches him at school, he recoils, changing his position. Previously, they shared the same table in class, but now they sit on opposite sides of the class. Leo attends one of Remi’s flute recitals, but feels awkward when his boyfriend shows up at hockey practice, waiting in the stands like a girlfriend would. Leo is figuring out what it means to be a man in the modern world, and one of the codes he’s supposed to live by is being aware of his emotional and physical closeness to other men.
Because the film goes out of its way to present the boys as pre-sexual, the tragedy seems all the more unfair. Some people have a clear sense of who they are at age 13, but most are still figuring it out five, 10, or even 20 years later. Whatever identity he assumes later in life, who can blame Leo for not wanting to be put in a box?
Well, the movie for one. Halfway through, something terrible happens. Leo goes on a field trip with the class, and Remi is nowhere to be found. When they return (spoiler alert), he learns that Rémi is dead. Nearly an hour of unanswered questions ensue, and while Dhont handles the associated mysteries as delicately as one would hope, it’s infuriating to think that’s where he let the story go. . Because now “Close” has become a movie about teenage suicide. We all know that these rates are higher among young homosexuals, but what drove Rémi to commit suicide? And what is Leo thinking from now on? Despite his evocative blue eyes, young actor Dambrine is not yet trained enough to project Leo’s thoughts. (End of spoiler.)
Heartfelt as it is, this tragedy feels like a narrative device, designed to prove some sort of ideological point, whereas “Close” could have taken the much harder dramatic route of watching how these two boys navigate newly discoveries. Many audiences will have no problem with Dhont’s choice, and the film could well win a major award at Cannes – it’s so strong in places. But in life, suicide is often seen as “the easy way out” and in returning to that trope, the film does the same. I am convinced that Dhont has a masterpiece in him. But there is an immaturity in his films that he must first overcome. He is already so close.