This is #CriticalMargin, where Ishita Sengupta gets contemplative about new films and shows. Here: Lukas Dhont's Close.
Last Updated: 07.57 PM, Mar 09, 2023
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LUKAS DHONT'S CLOSE is the kind of film that seeps into your body, knocks at your heart and permeates it with grief. Then quietly, without concern or consideration, ruptures it. Yet, the cruelty of the act is offset by the compliance it evokes. The feeling is that of intent: As if you summoned the film, submitted yourself to it and when the time arrived, opened your heart as an invitation to render it asunder. Dhont’s Close is the kind of film that damages without bruising, haunts without terrifying. It holds you close only to bring you closer to your own self.
If it seems as though the only way to talk about Close is to describe how it makes one feel, that isn’t untrue. The film is innately sensory, attuned to conjuring a profusion of emotions, each as primal as the other. It is a buoyant cinematic achievement and a human triumph in empathy, existing as a cautionary tale — and a careful study of an age and time when caution is thrown to the wind.
The 31-year-old Belgium has always been concerned with the cornering labels of identity. His debut feature Girl (2018), which earned him the Caméra d'Or award and the Queer Palm at Cannes, pulsates with the crisis of belonging in a world stacked with restrictions. This theme is reiterated in his second outing, an intimate coming of age drama that follows two young boys on their journey to high school. The focus is on what becomes of them once their cherished friendship is exposed to the public eye.
Léo and Rémi, both 13-year-olds, are best friends. They do everything together. They play in the field together, cycle together to school. They spend nights at each other’s homes. But more than that, they get each other. Rémi is the introvert, he keeps to himself. Léo, a more outgoing boy, knows this. He never leaves his friend’s side. When high school begins, they sit next to each other. Days into it, a girl asks if they are together…like ”a couple?”. Rémi doesn’t say a word but Léo gets defensive. Does her proximity with other female friends make her a lesbian? Léo asks. Despite rationale, the thought gets planted in the boy’s head. He begins distancing himself from Rémi.
In interviews prior to Close winning the Grand Prix, Dhont shared that the germ of the idea came from American psychologist Niobe Way’s non-fiction book Deep Secrets (2011), which examined the shifting dynamics in close friendship among teenage boys. The filmmaker takes this statistical detail and crafts a distinct portrait of friendship, shadowing the way it changes when exposed to social scrutiny. By doing so, he also showcases a rare depiction of a male bond when it's still free from gender trappings. There is this particular moment in the film when Léo puts his head on Rémi’s shoulder. The scene is infused with such unvarnished tenderness, such unadulterated affection that it takes you off guard for witnessing something so visually rare.
These instances build the film up to the theme it is rooted in, the sensation it has been designed upon — not the growing apart of two young boys, but the moment it occurs. Close, at its core, is about the earliest fissure in companionship, the grief that accompanies it, and the consequences it can bear. Dhont is preoccupied with exploring the first heartbreak in friendship, one that emotionally manifests itself, even in men. Being boys then, they still possess the agency to cry and mourn for what they have lost and who they have left behind.
Shot by Dutch cinematographer Frank van den Eeden (the man behind Girl), every frame in Close reflects the changing nature of their bond. When Léo and Rémi are together, the sky looks different and the colours feel warm. The frames are filled with effusive luminosity. The visual grammar alters as they start falling apart. Days give away to nights, the comfort of sun is replaced with frosty rain. By the time the loss is complete, the place looks different, as if every part of the setting has been dented by the friction.
Yet, for a film that conjures the throbbing pathos of a heartbreak, the focus is not on the one afflicted by it. Instead, Close traces the breaker, the boy who went for broke wanting to fit in. In the hands of another filmmaker, this shift in slant could have become a reduced representation of guilt. But Dhont does the impossible task of getting into the psyche of a child, reckoning with a primitive truth: in youth, heartbreak feels like shattering a glass; the one who fractures is also fragmented.
Léo becomes the face of grief, marinating in guilt and mourning. It is an impossible task but Eden Dambrine, who makes his acting debut, is unbelievably good. As the film progresses, the camera stays firmly on his face as he sobs for his friend in the guise of a physical injury. In a more telling touch, the young boy can be seen only wearing white t-shirts at the beginning and then later, as loss envelops him, his clothes bear darker tones. As if the misery in his heart has overflown, ravaging the insides and staining the outside. Gustav de Waele as Rémi, the boy with the kindest face I have seen, is startling. Close will go down as boasting of two of the finest lead performances this year.
Had the tone been sterner, Dhont’s sophomore outing would have been a stinging critique of toxic masculinity, the pressure men as young boys are subjected to, disguised as rites of passage. It is. But the film he has made is so incredibly tender that it also evades such linear reading. There is a statement here but there is primarily a story. The story of two best friends who did everything together. They played together, went to school together. One day, they were teased for being too close. So one of them decided to befriend other people. He did not wait on his way to school. The other friend could not recover. Dhont halts at this moment and shows us what a broken heart looks like, what a broken friendship feels like. Then he holds us close and asks: If belonging demands such brutality — if sacrificing proximity with friends is a prerequisite for a boy to become a man — at what cost do we want to belong?