Lukas Dhont /Kris Dewitte Menuet
At last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the Belgian movie Close so reduced audiences to tears that many of us were convinced we had the next winner of the Palme d’Or — the festival’s top prize — on our hands. And it did come close, so to speak: It wound up winning the Grand Prix, or second place. That’s a testament to the movie’s real emotional power, and while it left me misty-eyed rather than full-on sobbing, it will resonate with anyone who remembers the special intensity of their childhood friendships, the ones that felt like they would last forever.
The friendship in Close is between two inseparable 13-year-old boys, Léo and Rémi, who’ve grown up in neighboring families in the Belgian countryside. Léo’s parents run a flower farm, and the two boys spend a lot of their time playing outdoors, running and riding their bikes joyously past bright blooming fields, which the director Lukas Dhont films as if they were the Garden of Eden.
The boys have an intensely physical bond, whether taking naps together in the grass or sharing a bed during their many sleepovers. Again and again, Dhont presents us with casual images of boyhood tenderness. He leaves open the question of whether Léo and Rémi are going through an especially close phase of their friendship, or if they might be experiencing some early stirrings of sexual desire. Either way, Dhont seems to be saying, they deserve the time and space to figure it out.
Happily, they don’t get any judgment from their families, who have always been supportive of their friendship — especially Rémi’s mother, played by the luminous Émilie Dequenne. But when they return to school after a long, glorious summer together, Léo and Rémi are teased and even bullied about their friendship.
After seeing Léo rest his head on Rémi’s shoulder, a girl asks them if they’re “together,” like a couple. A boy attacks Léo with a homophobic slur. While Rémi doesn’t seem too affected by any of this, Léo suddenly turns self-conscious and embarrassed. And gradually he begins to pull away from Rémi, avoiding his hugs, ignoring him and hanging out with other kids. Léo also joins an ice hockey team — partly to make new friends, but also partly, you suspect, to conform to an acceptable masculine ideal.
Léo is played by Eden Dambrine, and Rémi by Gustav De Waele. They give two of the best, least affected child performances I’ve seen in some time, especially from Dambrine as Léo, who’s the movie’s main character. He registers every beat of Léo’s emotional progression — the initial shame, followed by guilt and regret — almost entirely through facial expressions and body language, rather than dialogue. Close gets how hard it can be for children, especially boys, to understand their emotions, let alone talk about them. As Léo and Rémi are pulled apart, they don’t have the words to express their loss and confusion.
Dhont has a real feel for the dynamics of loving families and a deep understanding of how cruel children can be — themes that were also evident in Girl, his controversial debut feature about a transgender teenager. He’s clearly interested in and sympathetic to the complicated inner lives of his young characters.
But something about Close kept me at a distance. That’s mainly due to a fateful narrative development about halfway through the movie that I won’t give away. It’s a plausible enough twist that Dhont tries to handle as delicately as possible, but it also feels like an easy way out. The admirable restraint of Dhont’s filmmaking begins to feel fussy and coy, as if he were torn between trying to tell an emotionally honest story and going straight for the jugular. After a while, even the gorgeous pastoral scenery — the umpteenth reminder of the boys’ lost innocence — begins to ring hollow. There’s no denying that Close is a beautiful movie. But its beauty can feel like an evasion, an escape from the uglier, messier aspects of love and loss.