Writer Jimmy Dougan
Close is being screened at Mockingbird Cinema from 3 March to 9 March and MAC from 31 March to 6 April
It begins in the dark: two boys hiding in a derelict house in the woods, snatches of hushed whispers half-heard over a black screen. Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele) squat close together, almost touching. Then, they run.
As the boys burst out into the lush Belgian countryside, Valentin Hadjadj’s score swells to life. The camera stays close on them, and it judders and races to keep up as they cross multi-colour peony fields.
These are the opening moments of Close, the sophomore film from Lukas Dhont which secured critical acclaim at Festival de Cannes and won the Grand Prix. A tale of a loving friendship cruelly ended, Dhont’s film follows these boys with unwavering commitment. The result is a quietly devastating film of rare power.
The bond these two boys share is physically affectionate and unfalteringly intimate. They are inseparable, spending most nights sleeping side-by-side in Rémi’s bed. Léo’s parents are working-class, growing and harvesting beautiful flowers. Rémi’s are a bit more well-off, treating Léo like a second son.
Rémi is quieter than the more outgoing Léo and plays the oboe for the school orchestra. Léo wants to travel the world and it’s a given that Rémi will join him.
But starting high school brings trouble; rumours are spreading.
When Léo rests his head on Rémi’s shoulder in class, a classmate watches with a mixture of confusion and interest for just a bit too long. Then, the dreaded question from three – a reference to Macbeth? – young girls in their class: “Are you two together?” Léo especially is befuddled, even offended.
There is, it’s important to remember, a big difference between spiteful maliciousness and legitimate curiosity. Rémi and Léo aren’t necessarily being bullied – nobody is asking these questions to torment them. The closeness of their relationship is genuinely unique for children of their age, especially between two boys. One of the film’s strengths is Dhont and co-screenwriter Angelo Tijssens’ firmly empathetic, non-judgemental treatment of these children.
There are no playground baddies.
The tragedy of Close arises not from Léo and Rémi’s mistreatment, but from the shame that unfurls in Léo regardless. It all feels achingly, sickeningly avoidable.
The difference between Rémi and Léo is the latter is a bit more… tractable. Rémi’s response to the rumours is to shrug. Who cares? They have each other. It’s Léo who pulls away and changes his behaviour. Scared of being seen as feminine, he takes up ice hockey and begins showing an interest in football to meekly ingratiate himself with the (very boring) cool kids.
To say any more of the plot would do Close a real disservice, but it’s hardly spoiling anything to say it moves almost inexorably, as if on rails, towards tragedy. There are two readings of the word ‘close’ after all. The end of this friendship rumbles distantly, like a natural disaster. Before you can react it’s here and you’re left watching these characters try to pick up the pieces.
Is Close a queer film? Maybe. But I’m reluctant to label it as such because neither teen ever explicitly identifies themselves as being queer, nor do they seem to be sexually attracted to each other. It feels silly – perhaps even reckless – to need to define them too, when the film shows so powerfully the dangers of imposing such labels on the young.
It does the complexity of their love a disservice.
Dhont’s debut Girl (2018) was a frustrating – arguably downright creepy – tale of a transgender ballerina and Close can also make for uncomfortable viewing. Some scenes have a voyeuristic quality which stop just short of feeling exploitative: Léo watching Rémi adoringly as he practises his oboe feels like a crass and heavy-handed metaphor for their burgeoning sexualities. And like Girl, this feels a touch overlong.
As for the two boys, Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele are nothing short of astonishing. The chemistry is startlingly livewire, radiating a deeply committed cinematic realism.
Their work left me genuinely slack-jawed, and I’m certain that Close will go on to be seen as one of the great childhood films owing to their performances.
Émilie Dequenne and Léa Drucker are sublime as Rémi and Léo’s respective mothers. Drucker does so much with silence and what hangs unsaid. Dequenne has a warm ethereality. She is first seen lounging in the grass, gradually becoming associated with nature. She embodies grace and then, crushingly, forgiveness.
This isn’t a film that you sit contentedly and watch.
It has no interest in being an act of simple escapism. It is a sad and upsetting experience – perhaps to a fault. Regardless, it lured me in, then left me a bit broken and bruised staring blankly at the credits.
It is a film bursting at every seam with love but has the feeling of watching a car-crash in slow motion. An unbearably moving film, Close feels, for our current culture, essential.
Close – official trailer:
Close will be screened at MAC from 31 March to 6 April: www.macbirmingham.co.uk/event/close
It also screens at Mockingbird Cinema, at The Custard Factory, from 3 March to 9 March: www.mockingbirdcinema.com/production/close
For full listings and links to online ticket salesclick on the links above.
To read more about Lukas Dhont go to: www.imdb.com/name/nm4080113
For more on MUBI and for full Midlands showtimes visit: www.mubi.com/close