M, 104 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

In this delicate study of a close friendship in adolescence, two best friends forever with strong and happy family backgrounds enjoy a wonderful life of freedom in the countryside. It is an idyllic self-sufficient relationship in a summer setting, but we sense it won’t last.

Close is the work of Lukas Dhont, a Belgian filmmaker who has captured engaging and natural performances from his two young actors, despite the intrusive intensity of the camerawork. Close up, and then some, the camera follows them around during games of make-believe, and it is along for the ride as they race through open fields and cycle along country roads. The summer bliss is a touch over-stated.

Gustav De Waele and Eden Dambrine play Remi and Leo, a pair of 13-year-olds on the brink of high school. That daunting institution where they will become socialised.

As soon as the boys enter the school grounds, their world is upended

The safe, benign world of close-ups swiftly transitions as the camera pulls away to a long shot. The camera of cinematographer Frank van den Eeden, who worked with the writer-director on his first feature, Girl, lets us know in an instant that the boys’ world has changed.

Leo is the first to recognise how some other students perceive them. The direct questions from some girls make him feel awkward about his friendship with Remi, and he struggles to distance himself from the relationship, while Remi hovers in the middle distance. The scenes of Leo participating in rowdy games of ice hockey, or in playground soccer with other boys, are increasingly frequent. A physical fight erupts between the two. There are tears, then one day Remi is gone forever.

As Leo’s fine blonde features dominate the frame, he gives less and less away, struggling to escape the pain of loss while in denial. He throws himself into the routine at home, which is helping out with the family nursery business, and into more rowdy ice hockey matches. The film meticulously details how Leo tries to hide and deny his feelings expression.

Dhont, who is gay, does not encourage us to see the boys’ story as a nascent queer love affair. It is interesting to read that the director has explained that he didn’t wish to limit the sensual and intimate aspects of Close to a queer reading. He wanted to open it up instead to reflect on the experience of young males in general, and how expression of many sorts is constrained.

A minimal script, observational camera and enhanced ambient sound make for a lot of longueurs, not unlike documentary

And Close is surprisingly satisfying to watch and appreciate as Dhont unpicks the classic masculine position of denial.

The happy family backgrounds of both boys are strongly emphasised. Tragedy can strike anywhere, even if families are loving and indulgent, providing unconditional warmth, shelter and understanding. Two really good actresses support this thesis. Leo’s maman, Nathalie, played by Lea Drucker in a very small part, manages to convey so much in just a few onscreen moments.

Eden Dambrine and Emilie Duquenne in Close. Image courtesy Madman

Emilie Duquenne as Sophie, Remi’s mother, has a more significant and developed role as a person who Leo also loves and feels close to, but must reconcile with for his role in Remi’s suicide. Back in 1999, Duquenne first made a big impression in the lead role as a teen desperate to escape her dysfunctional family circumstances in the Dardennes brothers’ film Rosetta, also an award-winner at Cannes.

Gradually, Leo becomes aware of Remi’s mother as empathy for the suffering of another begins to dawn. The film is very effective at imputing thoughts and feelings to Leo without a word spoken. He is captured watching Sophie from a distance at the funeral, and catches her clearing out Remi’s locker at school.

Ultimately, the inevitable question must be asked and the two of them must have their reckoning. When it finally happens while Sophie gives Leo a lift, it is a shock delivered in two terse and shocking words, ‘get out’.

Close demonstrates how society encourages young men to neutralize their emotions, and that empathy and self-knowledge can be resisted but that ultimately there can be no other honest place to go. It is quite an achievement, in this modest, simple and moving film.

First published in the Canberra Times on 17 February 2023.  Jane’s reviews are also published by Rotten Tomatoes