SPOILER ALERT: The penultimate paragraph of this review contains spoilers.
Few of us are fortunate enough to have a friendship as intimate and effortless as the one shared by 13-year-old Belgian boys Leo (Eden Dambrine) and Remi (Gustav De Waele) in “Close.” That connection, and the responsibility that comes with it, is at the heart of Lukas Dhont’s sophomore feature, so subtle and sensitive in the first half, so devastatingly false from its tragic twist on. This beautifully evocative film, which hails from an openly queer director, offers as pure a portrait of innocent, innocuous same-sex affection as we’ve ever encountered on film. And then it becomes something incredibly, unwelcomely different.
“Close” marks an auspicious return to the Cannes Film Festival for Dhont, whose 2018 Camera d’Or-winning debut, “Girl,” was simultaneously ahead of and behind the cultural conversation about trans youth. That remarkable first film dramatized the journey of an impatient teen anxious to become a ballerina, but cast a cisgender boy to tell that story, earning directing and acting prizes around the world, and pushback from the trans community in the U.S. Among the objections leveled by GLAAD and other critics was to a climactic scene in which the trans girl jeopardizes her life (and her future gender reassignment surgery) by cutting off her penis — a dramatic cliché that sends a potentially dangerous message to impressionable audiences who might identify with the main character.
“Close” presents a version of the same problem, but we’ll get to that later. First, it’s worth celebrating the first 45 minutes of the film, which will resonate deeply with anyone, gay or straight, who’s ever found themselves adapting their behavior according to the homophobia of others. We meet lifelong besties Leo and Remi playing together in a makeshift fort a stone’s throw from blooming dahlia fields — an incredibly specific, unspeakably lovely profession for Leo’s family that would surely make Terrence Malick envious (his characters could spin for hours among the shoulder-high flowers).
Seldom apart, Leo and Remi seem to be joined at the hip. Even their nights are spent sleeping over at one another’s houses, limbs entwined. Their parents treat both kids as their own (Léa Drucker and Emilie Dequenne play Leo and Remi’s respective mothers, and both are terrific). As in “Girl” — which put audiences in the place of its protagonist — Dhont and co-writer Angelo Tijssens present observational scenes of everyday life, reveal character through behavior rather than expository dialogue. So much of their technique is subtext, which relies on us to play detective. And yet, deprived of certain clues, audiences will construct whatever idea of these two boys they want in their heads, filling in the blanks with some combination of lived experience and personal prejudice. The movie all but demands it, requiring us to project our assumptions onto the characters.
Are Leo and Remi gay? Might one of them be, but not the other? (These are not irrelevant questions, even if the film stubbornly refuses to address them.) In the real world, by the age of 13, many boys have already had their first sexual experiences with neighbors, cousins or classmates, if not predatory adults in their circle — and here I’m speaking not just of gay boys but all young men, regardless of who or what they wind up fancying. It probably wouldn’t be appropriate for “Close” to dramatize such dynamics between two minors, but it would go a long way toward answering the movie’s million-dollar question.
On the first day of a new school term, surrounded by an unfamiliar group of students, the boys cling to one another especially tight in class and at recess (the way the siblings did in fellow Belgian Laura Wandel’s similarly insightful “Playground”). In the cafeteria, a surprisingly forward girl puts the question to them, “Are you together?” and Leo tenses up, explaining that they’re just “close,” like brothers.
It’s a life-changing moment for Leo and Remi, though neither one fully realizes it at the time. Like Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge, all innocence falls away. To be clear: These two have done nothing wrong (and even if they were practicing the kama sutra in their free time, instead of merely blowing in one another’s ears, it would be no one’s business but their own). But they have just experienced a key jolt of heteronormative socialization. They’ve been told that their friendship is not normal, and no one wants to be different in middle school. And thus a wedge is introduced to their friendship.
Suddenly self-conscious, Leo starts to behave differently. When Remi touches him at school, he recoils, shifting his position. Previously, they’d shared the same table in class, but now they sit on opposite sides of the classroom. Leo attends one of Remi’s flute recitals, but feels uncomfortable when his buddy shows up at hockey practice, waiting in the stands the way a girlfriend might. Leo is figuring out what it means to be a man in the modern world, and one of the codes by which he’s expected to live is to be mindful of his emotional and physical proximity to other guys.
Because the movie goes out of its way to present the boys as pre-sexual, the tragedy seems all the more unfair. Some people have a clear notion of their identities at 13, but most are still figuring it out five, 10 or even 20 years later. Whatever identity he assumes later in life, who can blame Leo for not wanting to be put in a box?
Well, the movie for one. Halfway through, something terrible happens. Leo goes on a field trip with the class, and Remi is nowhere to be found. When they return (spoiler alert), he learns that Remi is dead. Nearly an hour of unanswered questions follow, and though Dhont handles the attendant mysteries as delicately as one could hope, it’s exasperating to think this is where he allowed the story to go. Because now, “Close” has become a movie about teen suicide. We all know such rates are higher among queer youth, but what caused Remi to kill himself? And what is Leo thinking from here on out? Despite his evocative blue eyes, the young actor Dambrine is not yet practiced enough to project Leo’s thoughts. (End of spoiler.)
Sincere as it may be, this tragedy feels like a narrative device, designed to prove some kind of ideological point, when “Close” could have taken the far harder dramatic road of watching how these two boys navigate the newly discovered peer pressures. Many audiences will have no issue with Dhont’s choice, and the movie may well win a major prize at Cannes — it’s that strong in places. But in life, suicide is often seen as “taking the easy way out,” and in falling back on that trope, the movie does the same. I am convinced that Dhont has a masterpiece in him. But there’s an immaturity to his movies that he must first overcome. He’s already so close.