Directed by Lukas Dhont; Written by Angelo Tijssens and Lukas Dhont
Close hits you early, hits you hard, and the resulting lump in your throat lasts long after the credits roll.
It all starts so well, though. Léo and Rémi are best friends. It’s the waning days of summer, and life is good. They goof around, playact, run through flower fields with an abandon that only grade school summers afford. In less rambunctious moments Léo watches Rémi excel at the oboe, taking in his concentrated face with rapt intent.
They’re entering their teenage years. Their bodies are lanky, lean, flailing and not quite their own. They’re also not self-conscious about it yet and aware of the politics associated with sharing its intimacy. They lean on each other, sleep next to one another with natural inclination. A new school year starts, and suddenly, their intimacy is unnatural in the eyes of their schoolmates, inviting a scrutiny and commentary that frightens Léo. He pushes Rémi away and the fallout imperils a beautiful friendship and begets a ruinous guilt.
Bring some tissues, because Lukas Dhont has done another tearjerker. His last, Girl, was an empathetic story about a trans girl’s struggle with her sexual identity, and Close similarly lays bare the fraught emotions attached to gender roles and the body. Dhont’s treatment is achingly tender and lets a sparse soundscape invite you in to take in the minute expressions and interactions between actors Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele, who both do outstanding work in their roles and Léo and Rémi.
Dambrine’s work in particular demands a level of subtlety that many adult actors don’t master, but he does it with an ease that feels lived in, yet authentic. His performance also has to run the gamut, from hot anger to haunted silence and to evoke it all to such a (believable) degree is stunning.
Dhont’s completely comfortable with resting the film on his shoulders, focusing in on him and his scene partners with little else to detract from their performance. The only flourishes Dhont adds to what’s otherwise a fairly natural presentation is perhaps just the tight framing that never wants to stray far from Dambrine, De Waele or the rest of the cast. The subdued soundscape, and close-ups gives everything a sensuousness and feels celebratory of Léo and Rémi’s close relationship.
With something so wonderful, anything that happens to it has all the more potential for emotional ruin for the audience and Dhont doesn’t go easy. Don’t get me wrong, he directs with a light hand and nothing about Close feels overwrought and contrived. Instead, he orchestrates the drama for maximum effect and the raw humanity he lays bare up there on the big screen is impossible not to get overwhelmed by.
Toxic masculinity has very real consequences in Close, and the frail beings caught in its rigid and reductive rule set are made all the more vulnerable by it. Close is a masterful exploration of boyhood bonds, grief for what’s lost and how to keep yourself from caving in.