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Close Review: A piercingly intimate portrait of grief and healing

Led by an unforgettable Eden Dambrine, Lukas Dhont’s film is an accomplished snapshot of fractured male bonding, which manages to shatter as well as offer solace.

4/5rating
Close Review: A piercingly intimate portrait of grief and healing

Last Updated: 09.08 PM, Jul 14, 2023

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Story: The friendship between two 13-year-old boys, Leo (Eden Dambrine) and Remi (Gustav De Waele), is severely tested when their classmates question and wonder loudly if they are gay.

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Review: It is telling that Lukas Dhont’s film opens with the hushed voices of the two boys as they play one of their hideout games in a bunker. The wisp of unease that is planted as soon as the boys’ classmates ask if they are a couple grows sharply. The bunker scene seems to herald the consequent ambushing by a volley of opinions and judgements. A setting redolent with violence is turned tender and mischievous. Dhont makes us return to this space at a later juncture, underlining all that has been lost. The boys sprint out of the bunker and race through the flower fields in ecstatic abandon.

On Leo, the effect is immediate. He is combative and staunchly protests, asserting their love for each other is like that of brothers. Remi, however, remains quiet, nearly amused. But the suggestion into the nature of their intimacy that has been made is utterly corrosive. Such vocabulary hijacks and re-routes the very rhythms of their daily routine.

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Dhont makes us lean into the particularity of activities and depicts how the suggestion chips away at each of them, as Leo redesigns the ambit of their intimacy. During school break, as sleepy Remi inches closer to rest against him, Leo instantly scans his surroundings. Acutely aware of the teeming presence of classmates who will only seize another excuse to taunt him and call him a sissy, Leo pulls away. Like all mundane moments whose intensity Dhont amplifies in the film, this too is drawn out. Even a supposedly unremarkable, everyday moment receives utmost care and attention in Dhont’s unerringly minute gaze. The comforting familiarity of expected gestures peters out, Leo purposefully receding and shaking off the deep privacy in his bond with Remi. The way Leo chooses to remould these binding gestures acquires an almost monumental thrust in the film.

Foregrounding how Leo changes and disturbs small acts that held them together, Close measures the impact of the violence that a vocabulary of label-making inflicts on their pre-pubescent intimacy. Their intricately intertwined lives are torn asunder in Leo’s attempts to shed the proximity. So, when a shattered Remi confronts Leo for not waiting for him before cycling to school, Leo maintains his action was resolutely ordinary, while he insists otherwise.

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Leo grows disinterested in the hideout game. He is visibly embarrassed when Remi shows up at his ice hockey sessions, hovering almost like a partner. He stops going over to Remi’s and even when he does, no longer does he sleep next to him, sliding to lie on the floor instead. Dhont stages the morning thereafter and the ensuing gamut of emotional exchange between the friends powerfully and meticulously. Remi is puzzled to discover Leo sleeping on the floor and engages him in a scuffle that begins as amiably playful and shifts to bitter, incensed ground, the tussle of emotional reckonings coming stingingly alive.

What constitutes the unusual and aberrant and quantifiably queer in a relationship Dhont gently pokes apart. How do these assumptions that people pile on others in a language attempting to lend coherence and credence to identity instead become disrupting, damaging and limiting? Dhont smartly places us right on that transitory cusp of age, between childhood and puberty, when intimacy hasn’t yet been colonised by defining markers of identity. Jeopardised sense of masculinity striates Leo’s experience of this intimacy and it is this precarious space, the interstices between rigid conceptions of masculine behaviour/male bonding and an equation that is slowly being brushed by it, that Dhont excavates. The heteronormative code that is all too quick to assign and ascribe meaning and subtext haunts Leo once he is made aware; his adherence comes at a heavy price. Between the two, Leo is the talkative one, able to mingle, while Remi is shyer. He latches onto Leo so when Leo starts distancing himself, he is immediately ripped apart, struggling to comprehend his attitudinal changes.

The ties, however, are too profoundly embedded in the two; while one never recovers from the stab of betrayal and outright rejection, the other is pushed into a path of slowly, painfully recognising the depth of loss. Loss permeates his being, even as he initially denies it and seeks to muffle it. But bit by bit, it keeps uncorking, spilling out into wherever he looks. In Eden Dambrine’s face, there is rendered a search that is simultaneously attuned to disguising itself. This push-pull between concealing and expressing, guarding and projecting undergirds the emotional journey Leo embarks on once the heteronormative socialisation stains his friendship.

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The scars left by his withdrawal from his friend and therefore his own self is what Dhont chooses to dwell on in the second hour, inviting us on an exploration of Leo’s troubled conscience. The one who splinters and tears the bond forms the fascinating, crushing deep dive that Dhont pulls off. Dambrine registers every beat of Leo’s complex journey through grief, guilt and shame.

In a masterful balancing act of tonal confidence, the director infuses this brave shift the narrative takes, with not just compassion but a breathtaking critical distance, vis a vis the wounds Remi’s parents have to carry for the rest of their lives, despite the camera never leaving Leo’s side. The film cleverly steers clear of melodramatic trappings, adopting the bruising, honest confessional mode, where characters strain and chafe against that which they find difficult to process.

In a gut-wrenching scene at the dining table when both Leo and Remi’s families have gathered, Remi’s father (Kevin Janssens) breaks down, triggered by Leo’s brother talking about his future plans and his girlfriend. The façade of barely arranged composure slips.

The second hour is most strongly anchored by the relationship between Leo and Remi’s mother, Sophie, played by an outstanding Emilie Dequenne who conveys maximum ache with minimal dialogue. She is looking for answers and explanations, her dynamic with Leo leading up to a scene which is an explosive and tremendous release of confrontation, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

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Watching Close, devastation creeps up on the viewer, while simultaneously ever so gently guiding us to a richly earned place of catharsis, under Dhont’s masterfully delicate direction. It is a rare, wise film that understands and mines sorrow and the cost of conformity like no other.

Verdict: Shot luminously by cinematographer Frank van den Eeden, Lukas Dhont-directed Close is a quiet, unhurried, and profoundly affecting look at the snapping point in a young male friendship. Almost too gut wrenching at times, Dhont and Dambrine blend authentic, precise emotional truths that pockmark the road to recovery and growth.

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