Close

This Cannes prize-winning and Oscar-nominated Belgian drama about two 13-year-old boys is a sensitive and tender stunner.
Sarah Ward
February 15, 2023

Overview

When Léo (debutant Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (fellow first-timer Gustav De Waele) dash the carefree dash of youth in Close's early moments, rushing from a dark bunker out into the sunshine — from rocks and forest to a bloom-filled field ablaze with colour, too — this immediately evocative Belgian drama runs joyously with them. Girl writer/director Lukas Dhont starts his sophomore feature with a tremendous moment, one that's arresting to look at and to experience. The petals pop; the camera tracks, rushes and flies; the two 13-year-olds are as exuberant and at ease as they're ever likely to be in their lives. They're sprinting because they're happy and playing, and because summer in their village — and on Léo's parents' flower farm — is theirs for the revelling in. They don't and can't realise it because no kid does, but they're also bolting from the bliss that is their visibly contented childhood to the tussles and emotions of being a teenager.

Close's title does indeed apply to its two main figures; when it comes to adolescent friendships, they couldn't be tighter. As expressed in revelatory performances by Dambrine and De Waele, each of whom are genuine acting discoveries — Dhont spotted the former on a train from Antwerp to Ghent — these boys have an innocent intimate affinity closer than blood. They're euphoric with and in each other's company, and the feature plays like that's how it has always been between the two. They've also never queried or overthought what their connection means. Before high school commences, Close shows the slumber parties, and the shared hopes and dreams. It sits in on family dinners, demonstrating the ease with which each is a part of the other's broader lives amid both sets of mums and dads; Léo's are Nathalie (Léa Drucker, Custody) and Yves (Marc Weiss, Esprits de famille), Rémi's are Sophie (Émilie Dequenne, An Ordinary Man) and Peter (Kevin Janssens, Two Summers). The film adores their rapport like a summer day adores the breeze, and conveys it meticulously and movingly.

To watch this 2023 Best International Feature Film Oscar-nominee, 2022 Cannes Film Festival Grand Jury Prize-winner and recipient of Sydney Film Festival's top 2022 gong is to feel, to an extent that cinema only rarely manages. In fact, Léo and Rémi's camaraderie is that vibrantly depicted, and performed with portrayals that naturalistic and unaffected, that it's three things simultaneously here: a once-in-a-lifetime marvel, as innate as the act of growing up, and instantly relatable and recognisable to anyone who has ever had their own inseparable BFF as a child. That bond is such a given for the pair themselves, and that status quo is so entrancingly communicated by the movie, that questioning it is a shock for everyone. These friends have forged their identities as a duo, but they're also at that awkward coming-of-age stage where the wider world starts intruding upon their wants, likes and senses of self, and enforcing its traditional ideas of masculinity.

Bluntly, the girls in Léo and Rémi's grade ask if the two are a couple. More than that, they contend that the boys are one without even realising it. Enter the overwhelming weight of the society's norms, as Léo struggles with the schoolyard query and slowly pulls away. Words have consequences in Close. Actions do along with them. What kicks off as a portrait of a perfect friendship then segues into the agony of an idyll bursting. As homophobic jeers echo, Léo withdraws, boisterously palling around with other classmates instead and opting to take up ice hockey. Rémi keeps trying to reach out, and keeps showing his pain and confusion as Léo ditches him at breaks, after lessons, and on their usual rides to and from class.

In a sensitive script penned with his Girl co-scribe Angelo Tijssens, Dhont understands the heartache and heartbreak of a boyhood bond dissolving. His feature ripples with grief on a variety of levels. But the filmmaker and the film alike also deeply appreciate the heady jubilation of its opening third. They relish it. Close's second half is shattering; however, this is a movie that knows that to have forged such a connection is a thing to treasure even when it's lost. Close's second half wouldn't devastate as it does if its first wasn't so keenly felt. This isn't an overplayed picture — understatement is one of its key and crucial elements — but it's expertly attuned to what it's like to have a kindred spirit in your youth, and to the immense void left when that's gone.

Perhaps the best way to describe Close is with its homonym's antonym: open. Even when Léo begins closing himself off to Rémi, the film he's in remains unguarded in its gaze and emotions — and Dambrine and De Waele's performances retain the same trait as well. To watch Close is also to peer into the faces that fill its frames, as lensed vividly in claustrophobic closeups and telling wide shots by cinematographer Frank van den Eeden (Nobody Has to Know, and also Dhont's Girl), and to embrace the swirl of sentiments lingering inside. Looking at the movie's two young stars never simply involves seeing them overtly shift in tone. Spending more time with Dambrine isn't just a case of watching conflict, sorrow, realisation and guilt flicker in his eyes, either. Similarly, when Close intently observes the always-excellent Drucker in a pivotal mid-movie moment, then gives Dequenne more attention in its later scenes, it's open to — and tender about — how complicated its scenario and feelings have become.

The details in Close are everything, as they are in all relationships. Here's a mere four examples: the alternating closeness and space that van den Eeden spies when Léo and Rémi share a mattress, as kids at sleepovers do; the pride that wells in Léo's eyes as he watches skilled musician Rémi play the oboe; the seconds that stretch like lifetimes as Léo, Drucker and Dequenne process trauma right in front of the audience; and the seasons passing, as marked by the flower farm's rainbow of colours revolving through its annual cycle. As set to a subtly rousing string-and-oboe score by Valentin Hadjadj (another Girl returnee), every aspect of this delicately crafted gem is personal yet universal, as it should be considering its origins. Dhont harked back to his own close friendships as a teen, while also taking inspiration from psychologist Niobe Way's Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, a study of 100 boys aged 13–18. It's no wonder, then, that Close couldn't feel more raw, rich and authentic.

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