Cannes: Lukas Dhont’s sensitive second feature is far less problematic than “Girl,” but it still opts for exploitation at its own expense.
Thirteen-year-old best friends Leo (Eden Dambrine) and Remi (Gustav De Waele) don’t know it yet, but this will be the last perfect summer of their lives. It’ll be the last summer when they share the same imagination, love each other without having to think about what it means, and run or bike everywhere as fast as they can so as not to waste a minute of it.
The clock is ticking. Even now, there are already intimations that Leo — his cherubic face as clear as Caribbean ocean water — occasionally seems to be on the cusp of some deeper awareness; after calming his friend’s busy head to sleep at night, Leo lies awake in the bed they share together and searches Remi’s face for hints to a puzzle that hasn’t presented itself to him yet.
When school starts, their classmates will snicker at the boys for being too close. Leo, who appears to be the more intensely affectionate of the two, will also be the one who pushes the other away. It’s Leo who seems to be growing afraid of the friendship that used to be his greatest joy — Leo who wiggles away from Remi when they lie on the grass during recess, and Leo who starts playing hockey with the other boys as if trying to skate away from something else. For those reasons and more, it will be Leo who the film about these boys continues to follow after something happens that changes his friendship with Remi forever.
“Close” is the second feature by Belgian director Lukas Dhont, whose 2019 debut “Girl” — another lucid, involving, and acutely observed coming-of-age drama — was understandably controversial both for its casting of a cisgender boy in the role of a trans ballet dancer, and for the way its final moments weaponized the film’s clarity toward a violent ending that verged on the emotionally pornographic. Dhont’s follow-up steers clear of the first problem, but only mitigates the second.
Once again, a vividly affecting vision of adolescent identity is upended by a sudden trauma so intense that it bleeds into every other scene of the film (past and future, alike); once again, it dampens the nuance of Dhont’s work to a degree that suggests the filmmaker doesn’t trust his own gift for rendering the greatest intimacies of growing up with 8K ultra-clarity. This time, however, the violence doesn’t wait for the end of the story. This time, it drops from the sky at the end of the first act, sacrificing a palpably specific (and already heartrending) portrait of male friendship in the face of heteronormativity at the altar of a much broader sketch of loss. For a film that asks such delicate questions, and probes them with a limpid honesty that American coming-of-age stories almost never allow, it’s hard to shake the feeling that “Close” takes the easy way out.
It’s all the more unfortunate because the first section of this story is told with such entrancing precision. The childhood idyll that Leo and Remi share together is perhaps a bit much — cue these happy boys running through Monet-worthy flower beds together as Valentin Hadjadj’s lush woodwind score blows through their hair like a late summer breeze — but there’s no denying how well Dhont conveys the euphoric nowness of two 13-year-old best friends spending a free day together, or that the impeccable naturalism of Dambrine and De Waele’s performances allow their director to gild the lily without making it seem like plastic.
Tenderly — and with a rare grace only made possible through absence — Dhont also traces the invisible boundaries that young men are conditioned to see between themselves and their closest male friends, the way that scared children search for shadows they can mistake for ghosts. The intimacy of the bond shared between Leo and Remi invites the extremely gentle implication that the former might be developing more romantic feelings toward the latter (whose own feelings are harder to parse).
Even before things between the boys turn somewhat hostile, “Close” is saturated by the crushingly sad idea that Leo is pushing Remi away as a preemptive form of self-denial; that this poor kid is trying to protect himself from the horrible thought that his love for Remi might be the very thing that threatens their sacred friendship — a thought that only weighs heavier upon Leo as the film goes along.
Dhont’s careful attention to the space between bodies (along with the shallow depth of field that cinematographer Frank van den Eeden uses to cleave them apart and soften them back together) allows the film to access specifically queer experiences of growing up while also reflecting broader truths about the distancing effect that masculine norms can impose upon male friendships; about how teenage boys often drift apart as the soft intimacy they shared as kids hardens into something they’re taught to keep secret as young adults.
The film pivots on a shot so raw and rich with hurt that it feels like it’s happening directly to you. Driven by Leo’s mother, Nathalie (Léa Drucker, phenomenal when needed), the action is set on a school bus, and holds on the sight of a searching human face for so long that you have time to see behind Nathalie’s eyes and arrange her mess of conflicted feelings into a finished jigsaw puzzle before Dhont cuts away. It’s an unforgettably powerful example of the emotional translucence that Dhont wields like a double-edged sword, as every subsequent moment in the movie brings the same clarity to bear upon scenes that are far less pointed in their stakes or intent.
That clarity — that sense of psychology written on glass — leaves us with little to process in a movie that dilutes Leo’s angst with the same tragedy that Dhont and Angelo Tijssens’ script uses to enhance it. Rather than spend the rest of the movie wrestling with some of the most delicate feelings that a 13-year-old could possibly have, “Close” squishes them under a metric ton of suffering. Rather than push Leo to navigate the responsibility he feels for pushing Remi away, as the first portion of the film suggests that it will, “Close” raises the stakes in a way that makes it all but impossible for its hapless protagonist to make any meaningful sense of his loss.
Left to his own devices, Leo drifts further toward heteronormative culture through a repetitive series of scenes in which he practices with and plays on the school hockey team (Dhont captures the kid’s growth from rookie to semi-competent right defenseman and with the same close attention bends the metal cage of Leo’s helmet into a veritable prison). Elsewhere, Leo forms an uneasy friendship with Remi’s mom (Emilie Dequenne), which never ventures into unexpected places, and feels destined for overwrought bathos even before it unravels into a parade of eye-rolling symbolism and unbelievable character choices. One beat in which Remi’s mom becomes uncontrollably upset rings as false as the aforementioned school bus scene rings true.
Beautiful as Dhont’s eye for detail can be, and vital as his willingness to explore the unbearably tender pockets of adolescence often proves here, “Close” still finds its sensitive — if sometimes borderline sadistic — young filmmaker defaulting to universal pain whenever he fears that more personal feelings may be too poignantly ethereal to see on camera. Extremely accomplished but still only 31 years old, Dhont may still have some of his own growing up to do.
“Close” premiered in Competition at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. A24 will release it in North America.