“Those criticisms aside, Close makes clear what Girl already hinted at, which is that Dhont is exceptionally adept at rendering the brittleness of human relationships and emotions at a younger age, in part because he is able to get the very best out of his cast.”
When Belgian director Lukas Dhont won the Un Certain Regard prize in 2018 for his film Girl, about a trans girl pursuing a career as a ballerina while preparing for sex reassignment surgery, the film had its detractors in trans and queer circles for its portrayal of gender dysphoria and self-harm, especially with both Dhont and the lead actor (Victor Polster) being cis gendered. Nora Monsecour, the dancer whose life story Girl was based on, defended the film, saying that it was her story and not the story of trans people in general, but that didn’t do much to stem the criticism. With his latest film Close, hotly tipped to win the Palme d’Or if we go by initial indications, Dhont might again draw ire from the queer community because of the way it tells its story about two young teenage boys discovering their sexuality, and in particular a plot point it uses to give the film its dramatic heft. Since it will be impossible to properly discuss the film and its implications without going over said plot point, this review will contain spoilers, so beware.
Leo (Eden Dambrine) and Remi (Gustav De Waele) spend every waking minute of the summer with each other. In fact, most non-waking moments too. The two BFFs, as they label themselves, are about to start high school. Even if they may not acknowledge it themselves yet, they are discovering their sexuality and their deeper feelings for each other through a gaze here, a touch there. Some of their new classmates notice it too, in particular the girls flat out asking them if they are a couple. Leo denies it, while Remi keeps silent yet still seeks physical connection with Leo whenever he can. Slowly but surely Leo starts to push Remi away, even if he clearly has feelings for the other boy as well. Peer pressure and a need to fit in keeps him closeted as the two boys drift apart. Leo takes up playing hockey as if to prove a point, but when Remi shows up at a practice session it is clear Leo is fooling himself. Then one day Remi doesn’t show up for a class trip, leaving Leo anxiously looking around the bus. Even though the trip is one filled with joy, upon his return he finds out why Remi was missing: he has committed suicide.
This ‘twist’ happens around the 45-minute mark of Close, which is a problem in and of itself. The rest of the film sees Leo trying to come to grips with his friend’s death and with his actions indirectly causing Remi to take his life. He repeatedly seeks out Remi’s mother (Emilie Dequenne), trying to verbalize his feelings of guilt but failing. He also tries to lose himself in his hockey, but his helmet feels more like a metaphorical cage to keep out the world than anything else. It all builds up to that final cathartic moment that you know is coming, Valentin Hadjadj’s far from subtle score leading the way, forcing the tear ducts open even as you know you are emotionally manipulated.
It is not the manipulation after Remi’s fateful exit from the narrative that hampers Close though. The problem is the film’s balance on that turning point in the story. By putting it so relatively early in the film, the storytelling in the film’s subsequent acts feels stretched and repetitive to the point of milking emotions. Dhont is skilled enough to make most of the scenes still work because he avoids heavy-handedness (for the most part, at least), and he has assembled a set of actors who deliver nothing short of stellar work. The two young actors, of whom Dambrine is obviously given the most material, provide knockout performances of tentative desire, with Dambrine hiding a sea of inner pain behind his open-eyed gaze. Dequenne and Léa Drucker (as Leo’s mom) deliver career-best performances, with Drucker doing devastating work in the moment she has to tell her son what happened to his best friend.
A more contentious talking point will be Remi’s death, and whether queer cinema really needed another tragic moment like that to underline the struggles of the gay community. That discussion boils down to the reason behind telling these kinds of stories. Most audiences seeking out a film like Close will already be more open to non-heterosexual relationships, so any idea of opening eyes is rather naïve, and queer stories are already so often depicted as worlds of misery and tragedy that it has almost become a trope. Using a queer death to make a point is similar (though not as egregious) to what James Gray did earlier this competition in using an underdeveloped black character to teach a white kid a life lesson. That may not irk all audiences alike, but hopefully Dhont tells a straighter story next time around (pun semi-intended).
Those criticisms aside, Close makes clear what Girl already hinted at, which is that Dhont is exceptionally adept at rendering the brittleness of human relationships and emotions at a younger age, in part because he is able to get the very best out of his cast. He may be trying to wring too much drama out of his stories to the point where earnestness becomes eagerness, but there is no denying he is a great talent. Funnily enough, both Belgian-directed films in competition depict a story of strong male friendship (albeit Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch’s The Eight Mountains is not about a gay one), while screening at opposite ends of the festival. Putting them side by side, Close is less convincing, as the other film rings more true, but it is undeniable that for most audiences Dhont’s film had a bigger effect. And that seems exactly what he was going for.