Some Might Call This Film Dealing With Issues of Adolescence Too ‘Close’
The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, ‘Close’ is so emotionally acute, it’s like watching a small heart cave in and shut out everyone.
The first years of adolescence can be brutal: new schools to navigate, social pressures increasing, hormone levels surging, to name but a few burdens. If one adds guilt and shame to the list, then trauma can even extend for years into adulthood. A new Belgian movie, “Close,” deals compassionately with this time period and its attendant anxieties.
The film opens on best friends Léo and Rémi playing an imaginary game in their local forest. Léo is the more outgoing one, a bit puckish but gentle, while Rémi is a touch moody though playful. They hang out every day during the summer, with Léo often sleeping over at Rémi’s house.
When Rémi can’t get to sleep because his mind is racing, Léo tells him a make-believe story, complete with lulling sound effects that successfully send his friend to slumber. Besides being quite tender, the scene nicely depicts the bond between the two boys, with Rémi reliant on Léo’s positivity and their friendship based on a profound love for each other, notions of masculinity notwithstanding.
Soon, it’s a new school year, and this is when the problems begin. On the first day, a girl questions the two boys in front of other kids on whether they’re a couple, with Léo firmly denying it and reiterating that they’re best friends. As sex starts to seep into conversations, and doubts about identity creep up, Léo pulls back from Rémi by participating in sports, though it clearly pains him to do so. The morning after Léo is called a gay slur and struck by two other boys at school, Léo and Rémi are seen innocently roughhousing. Tellingly, it turns violent, and Rémi is very affected.
Once Léo becomes aware his behavior is under scrutiny, he gets self-conscious — and the movie does as well. What was portrayed in a naturalistic manner earlier in the film shifts to a more symbolic style. From a tilling machine cutting down fields of flowers to Léo playing ice hockey armored in protective gear, every setting depicted and every action he engages in gains further meaning. Such metaphoric visuals could have come off as banal if director Lukas Dhont hadn’t grounded them in a strong sense of place — Léo’s family’s flower farm providing not only local color but grit — and aligned them with the character’s clearly comprehensible internal strife.
The filmmakers are immensely helped by the performances of the two boys. Playing Rémi, Gustav De Waele brings a retiring fragility to the role, visibly struggling with school and attempting to understand Léo’s ultimate rejection of him. Newcomer Eden Dambrine mesmerizes as the lead Léo. Spotted on a train by Mr. Dhont, he sometimes looks and behaves like the cat-eyed, slightly effeminate boy that he is, and at other times he’s changed into a young adult before our very eyes.
As Rémi’s mother Sophie, Émilie Dequenne also stands out, and it’s great to see her in a movie similar to her very first, 1999’s “Rosetta.” That Palm d’Or winner was directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (also Belgian), and Mr. Dhont owes quite a bit to the revered brother directors’ always-moving camerawork and singular focus on a character. Sometimes, this almost-exclusive perspective limits “Close,” creating a nearsighted view that bars other characters beyond Léo and strains the bounds of the narrative.
In its final scenes, though, the film pairs Léo with Sophie for a haunting climax. There’s a reason why the movie won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and is nominated for Best International Feature Film at this year’s Academy Awards: It is so emotionally acute, it’s like watching a small heart cave in and shut out everyone. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t leave the heart in that state, so we also witness its forgiveness. One might well someday find “Close” mentioned as a pinnacle of “heartbreaking” in film, and yet hope is never far away.