Close Review: A Tale of Love and Friendship

Lukas Dhont's sophomore feature is one of the year's best films

“Are you two together?” a classmate queries Léo and Rémi in Close. Léo (Eden Dambrine) stares back at the girl. “We’re just friends,” he replies. The young boy fiercely and assertively denies her suspicions while Rémi (Gustave De Waele) shifts uncomfortably beside him. This tense moment ultimately transforms the boys’ relationship.

Close, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes this year and is Belgium’s bid in the Best International Feature Oscar race, masterfully observes intimacy and heartache between friends. Directed by Lukas Dhont (Girl), Close is one of the most heartbreaking portraits of bullying ever put to film. At the same time, it is a deeply moving study of fraternal love. It delicately navigates the jungle of the schoolyard and the bonds that break when we try to categorize and compartmentalize our peers. The film is further proof that Dhont is among the most talented artists of his generation thanks to the trust he affords his young actors and the emotionally rich characters they create in his care.

Dhont introduces Léo and Rémi as they enjoy their final days of summer vacation. The boys are inseparable. Running wild in the fields, careening down roads on their bikes as the wind flaps through their hair, and cozying up together during sleepovers, their camaraderie testifies to the strength of their relationship. Each boy seems like all the other friend has in the world. Free and innocent on the cusp of adolescence, there’s something pure and uncorrupted about their boyish intimacy.

When the schoolyear begins, Dhont astutely situates Léo and Rémi amid a sea of students. They’re practically one unit as they’re always together in the schoolyard or sitting side-by-side in class. One boy’s head is almost always resting on the other’s should. They’re each other’s rock.

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The Power of Words

Dhont lets viewers witness Léo and Rémi’s friendship with disarming intimacy. The bond is overwhelmingly strong thanks to the natural rapport that Dambrine and De Waele share. By the time their classmate violates their friendship with her probing questions and insinuations about the impropriety of male intimacy, we’re almost unbearably close to these boys. Then, when the bullying unfolds tragically, Dhont shatters viewers’ hearts. The film confronts the power of words with raw, naked emotion. Kids can be cruel, and the film shows the dire consequences the result when we hurt the ones we love most.

The cruelest words in Close come not from the nosy classmate, but from Léo in his rebuttal. It’s a bit too quick, stern, and defensive. Most of all, it’s unfair to Rémi. Léo coldly distances himself from his best friend in a heartbeat. He recoils at the suggestion that boys can’t simply be good friends.

The boys then grow devastatingly apart. They distance themselves from one another and performatively rebuff the proximity of their friendship. Dhont smartly observes the social dynamics of adolescence and the way kids are taught to learn gendered roles. Moreover, Close affords the characters ample respect as they struggle with the weight of their relationship. Dhont doesn’t label the boys’ friendship. Viewers can interpret the boys’ relationship as they wish, but there’s nothing to mark this story explicitly as a coming out tale. However, viewers who’ve sat in Léo and Rémi’s place and been on the receiving end of such questioning will relate to the boys’ rift well. Dhont captures the excruciating infidelity that comes with alienating others out of fear of being outed. Close remarkably conveys an experiential burden that many young people face in these boys’ shoes. The film is a specific yet universal take on friendship, love, and betrayal.

 

Young Actors in Bloom

Close examines the strange stigma of fraternal love through the complex and astonishing performances from the two leads. Dhont’s hand for directing young actors is most commendable. As the inquisitive Léo and the restless Rémi, Dambrine and De Waele offer one of the best pairs of performances by young actors ever. These are turns of soul-searching vulnerability. Their natural chemistry effortlessly conveys the boys’ bond, as their interactions offer tones of innocence and play. There’s also great emotional intelligence to these turns. One cannot understate the dexterity with which they carry the coldness that ultimately engulfs the boys’ friendship. The film’s emotional turn is painfully, nakedly raw.

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Close particularly challenges Dambrine with carrying nearly every scene. He gamely rises to the occasion. This performance relies on interiority and introspection. With his piercing eyes, the young actor probes the layers of betrayal—of his friend, of himself—with which Léo wrestles. But Close also calls for heavy lifting as Léo confronts the emotions that have been bottled within his heart. Dambrine gives a performance wise beyond his years. Late in the film, Close asks Dambrine to hold his with veteran actors like Léa Drucker and Émilie Dequenne, playing the boys’ mothers, and the actor absolutely devastates as Léo relieves himself of the burden he’s been carrying.

Dhont mirrors the young boy’s emotional fragility with the changing seasons and the harvest of the flowers at his family farm. As the days grow darker as the flowers wilt, the film elegiacally evokes lost youth and innocence. The flowers bloom again though, as Close invites viewers to cherish the relationships that define us and may ultimately be more fleeting than we expect.

 

Close screened at the 2022 Windsor International Film Festival and opens theatrically in 2023.

 



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