Director: Lukas Dhont
Stars: Eden Dambrine, Gustav De Waele, Émilie Dequenne
On paper, Close is a very tender, eminently recommendable film. It’s a mannered, observational and handsome one. Cinematographer Frank van den Eeden has a way with warm light and shallow focus. When it’s summer in the narrative, his images are balmy and everlasting. When capturing fast movement – children at play – the handheld is immersive. We’re with the characters. We’re in the scene. It’s remarkably deft work. But it is gorgeous in a way that feels endemic of a wider-reaching banality-through-tastefulness that gradually drags the picture down.
Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Remi (Gustav De Waele) are and always have been best friends. Neighbours from early childhood, theirs is a world of play and make belief. Of innocence. We meet them at the beginning of their high school experience where, interacting socially with their peers, the nature of their bond is called into question. The girls ask – not unreasonably – are they a couple? Léo responds quite defensively that they’re not, then takes steps to distance himself from Remi to prove it. Remi doesn’t understand his friend’s new coldness.
Many filmmakers have proven themselves adept at studying the nuances of behaviour in children. You can look at much of the career of Céline Sciamma thus far. Or, from just last year, Laura Wandel’s kid’s-eye-view of bullying Playground. Here director Lukas Dhont shows a similar keenness to get fresh and naturalistic performances from untested young stars. And with van den Eeden haloing them in such beautiful light, the results are measured and emotive. The narrative chosen here pries lightly into questions of burgeoning sexual identity; a tightrope subject, especially when the subjects are so young. It can be done successfully (See the aforementioned Sciamma’s 2007 debut Water Lilies), but it’s a tall order to get the balance right. One wonders whether this factored into Dhont’s possibly gun-shy decision to deflect the story into a study of grief and guilt after sudden tragedy.
The sharp narrative swerve happens around half an hour into the picture and is handled expertly. We in the audience are invited to share in the visual clues before the news is broken, and a sense of violence is furthered by the bold use of the colour red in the production design. A painted wall reflecting on a face is as suggestive and raw as any explicit imagery might have been in so delicate a subject. A sense of reeling is furthered by the aforementioned handheld in combination with the film’s oft-weaponised shallow focus. In this breathless stretch it really feels as though Dhont has captured something uncannily close to the real feeling. Many may find the narrative choice itself upsetting, but the delivery is superb.
But it leaves Close flapping like a tethered kite; the only thing left to do is reel it in. After such a disruption, the remaining hour cleaves closer and closer to expectation, until it can feel like a process of marking time until an eventual – and predictable – scene of overdue catharsis finally occurs. At its most reductive, Close becomes a matter of waiting for two characters to communicate and have a good cry.
So now you have a film about processing. About the time it takes to internally sift, react and respond to sudden, confusing and terrifying change. About the frustration of unanswered questions. But mostly about time. This means itemising the day-to-day from the changed perspective of someone suffering dully through it. Time and again we return to Léo at ice hockey practice, where his relative newness means he can’t quite keep on his feet like the other boys. The observational intrigue of these scenes diminishes rapidly with repetition, until we’re left with the rather blunt metaphor at their base. Honestly, you may come to hate ice hockey.
Performances are good. The young boys are excellent, and Dambrine particularly is clearly quite a find; an angelic face who can cry on cue. Elsewhere and of note Émilie Dequenne makes a welcome return to our screens. It feels as though she’s been a scant presence since her sensational turn in Our Children a decade ago. Divided by 30 years experience, it is these two that circle one another particularly as the film winds toward its inevitable conclusion. The whole is also enormously intuitive about early encounters with shame – and particularly unearned shame – and our first struggles to articulate newly discovered emotions.
Perhaps it is because the narrative surprise (no surprise at all, actually, thanks to the BBFC warning before the picture even begins) is rendered so effectively, but everything that follows it feels tidily preordained, even procedural in its own way. Close adheres to a template of earnest, prettily-rendered world cinema so resolutely that it starts feeling like the sincerest of parodies, suffocated by it’s own tasteful restraint, it’s own 3D-printed facsimile of beauty. In an effort not to offend or provoke controversy, all the edges have been shorn away, much like its persistent shallow focus. It feels, ultimately, like the cinematic equivalent of a Coldplay record, right down to the measured swells of sentimentality and the desire to leave the viewer cushioned, placated.
Close almost ends on a renewing sense of ambiguity. Dambrine turns toward camera. Doesn’t quite spot us, but maybe, ineffably, he catches sight of something – someone – else. An impossibility. We don’t see what he sees. It’s a great little moment, and a final reminder of a different kind of film that’s in here, one that’s frustratingly buried under the urge to conform to certain aesthetics. A textbook example of cinema’s ability to frame childhood’s aches and beauties, but one so textbook it verges on timidity and, afterwards, that sensation is all that remains.